Ten Things You Can Do to Reduce Incarceration
This monthly feature was conceived by writer and Nation editorial board member Walter Mosley as a kind of do-it-yourself opinion and action device. Most often "Ten Things" will offer a brief list of recommendations for accomplishing a desired political or social end, sometimes bringing to light something generally unknown. The purpose of the feature is to go to the heart of issues in a stripped-down, active and informed way. After getting our visiting expert -- or everyday citizen -- to construct the list, we will interview that person and post a brief online version of "Ten Things," with links to relevant websites, books or other information. Readers who wish to propose ideas for "Ten Things" should e-mail us at NationTenThings@gmail.com or use the e-form at the bottom of this page.
The United States has 5 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners. Criminologists have found that when too many people are incarcerated the crime rate actually increases. Imagine if we spent some of the $60 billion a year prisons cost on education, job training and healthcare. Paul Butler, a law professor, former federal prosecutor and author of Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice suggests ways to undo the damage caused by overincarceration.
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1 Do your jury duty. If you are a juror in a non-violent drug case, vote not guilty. Jury nullification--an acquittal based on principle--is perfectly legal. The framers intended jurors to be a check on unjust prosecutions and bad laws. Click here for more information.
2 Pay a kid to graduate. A report by the RAND Corporation found that paying students to finish high school prevented more crime than the toughest sentencing laws. Dropping out of school creates a high risk of ending up in jail. Work with your community group or place of worship to create a program to pay at-risk students to graduate from high school.
3 Come out of the closet about your drug use. War on drugs propaganda says users are bad people. Let your fellow citizens know the real face of the American drug user. Don't be scared. Barack Obama admitted he used marijuana and cocaine during his youth, and he got elected president!
4 Hire a formerly incarcerated person. Every year about 600,000 people get out of jail. The odds are against their landing a job, which is a huge factor in why more than half will be re-arrested within a year. Go to Hired Network. Go here if you are formerly incarcerated or visit Reentry Policy.
5 Vote for politicians who are smart on crime. Tougher sentences aren't the answer. In the US criminal sentences are twice as long as those in England, three times those in Canada and five to ten times those in France. And yet crime rates in US cities are higher than in those nations.
6 Just say no to the police. When cops request your consent to pat you down, peek inside your backpack or purse or search your car, you have the right to decline. When they have a warrant or other legal cause to search, like at an airport, they don't have to ask. Too many Americans--especially in communities of color--are scared to death of the police. Go to ACLU "Know Your Rights" or the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement to learn your rights if stopped by the police.
7 Don't be a professional snitch. If you have information about a violent or property crime, call the police. Witnessing is fine. But snitches get paid either in cash or a break in their own prosecution for tattling. They make untrustworthy witnesses. Snitches are responsible for almost half the wrongful convictions of people who were later found to be innocent.
8 Talk up the trades. Retail drug selling pays about as much as working at McDonald's. As the book Freakonomics pointed out, that's why most drug dealers live with their moms. Many dealers would prefer a more lucrative--and safer--line of work. People who don't see themselves as "college material" and might otherwise end up on the street should be encouraged to get training for a blue collar trade. Click here for more information.
9 Let accused people discover the evidence against them. There are very few discovery requirements in criminal law. Many defendants in criminal cases don't learn who the witnesses are--or even get copies of police reports--until the day of the trial. "Open discovery" laws like one Ohio recently introduced will enable criminal defendants to see the state's evidence against them before trial.
10 Listen to hip-hop. No other aspect of pop culture has considered as carefully, and as personally, the costs and benefits of the American punishment regime. Members of the hip-hop nation often come fr om the most dangerous communities and have a vested interest in safety . They help us understand that treating people who have messed up with love and dignity is, for law-abiding citizens, an act of self-interest and community safety. Visit AllHipHop.com or Hip Hop Caucus to learn the political side of hip-hop.