I applaud reality star, Kim Kardashian for embarking on a mission convincing President Trump to commute a woman’s prison sentence who had been serving mandatory life plus 25 years, for her role in a Tennessee drug ring. Alice Johnson, age 63, is a mother of five who admitted her crimes for which she was sentenced by a federal judge in 1996.
Mrs. Johnson had petitioned President Obama for clemency in 2014, but was denied. Hers was a significant drug crime, but also a first offence. During her prison time, she was considered a model inmate.
While president, Barack Obama issued nearly two thousand clemency orders for inmates serving non-violent offenses. I was no fan of President Obama, but I do think he was right to address the issue of harsh and mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes.
Mrs. Johnson certainly deserved prison time. But relegating a human being to life without a chance of parole, except in the most egregious of crimes, is barbaric. If Mrs. Johnson, and others like her, remained in prison until age 90 or 100, costs to the taxpayer would be enormous.
Elderly people in prison is becoming the norm, not the exception. According to Wikipedia sources, prison populations are rapidly aging. While the prison population grew by 8 percent from 2000 to 2005, the over-55 population grew by 33 percent. According to the Bureau of Justice, in 1993 only 3.1 percent of inmates were over age 55. In 2013 that had risen to 9.9 percent. Overall prison inmate population stands at roughly 2.2 million. Assembled, it could rank as the 35th largest state in the union
The overall budget costs for operating federal and state prisons, according to Wikipedia sources, is $80 billion a year. A 2017 report by Forbes cites $100 billion a year as taxpayers cost to fund police departments. This doesn’t include federal agencies, nor judges, prosecutors and parole/probation systems. As we see, the overall costs for running the criminal justice systems in America are surpassed only by the $717 billion expended for the U.S. Military.
Most of these criminal justice increases can be attributed to mandatory sentencing passed through legislation, forcing judges into rigid sentencing compliance with no discretion. Mandatory-minimums are used by prosecutors in negotiating plea deals, thus clearing the dockets while keeping up with caseloads, much like Lucille Ball keeping up with the runaway conveyor belt. Three-strike laws also call for life sentences in 28 states, including Florida, once someone has committed a third felony.
I’m no bleeding heart. I put hundreds of felons in jail during my 30 years on the job, some of whom would never see freedom again. I’ve seen the worst of the worst. But I also know that politicians consider being labeled “soft on crime” is a death knell during a candidacy. That leads to unreasonable or insensible laws that keep too many people in jail for too long, unnecessarily.
Whatever happened to emphasis on rehabilitation?
I’ve been there when we cops and prosecutors high-fived a successful case closure when a criminal went to jail. We forget that every time we put someone in prison, with rare exceptions, they will be coming out the other end one day. Then what do we have? That quite often results in an inability to work, function or socialize, because extreme long term incarceration changes people.
In 1971, I arrested a serial rapist who went on a rampage two months after being released from a long prison term. He could not adjust to free life. While committing rapes, he showed victims his tattoos, scars and other markings. He wanted to be caught. He wanted to go “home.”
Drug crimes are dastardly, to be sure. But locking up human beings for the entire lifetime is equally as dastardly. Surely, we can do better.
President Trump did a good thing. Alice Johnson paid her debt to society. So have many others like her.