Punishing Taxpayers: US Prison System Run Amok?

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WASHINGTON - People living in America make up 5 percent of the planet's population but 25 percent of the world's prisoners.

Even if those prisoners are guilty, many are questioning whether they all should be behind bars. A surprising coalition is now saying definitely not.

Liberals and conservatives are banding together, agreeing that many people who shouldn't be behind bars are being imprisoned at a high cost to society.

They say it's time to rein in those costs.

Warped Priorities

Princeton professor and anti-poverty advocate Cornel West suggested that only about 30 percent of America's prisoners are considered dangerous enough to be a threat to society.

"Of 2.5 million people in prison, 62 percent of them are there for soft, non-offensive, drug convictions," West told CBN News.

That belief combined with a price tag close to $300 billion to capture, convict, and jail those prisoners has people from both the left and right questioning if there's a better, smarter way.

West and his long-time friend PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley want to reform a system they believe sweeps far too many poor people and people of color behind bars, while doing little to educate them.

African-Americans are now five times more likely to end up in prison than South African blacks were at the height of apartheid.

"It's warped priorities: prisons over education," West stated.

"We have to do something about these persons who need help as opposed to being locked up," Smiley said. "That's where it has to start."

Groups from across the political spectrum, like the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, Prison Fellowship, and the liberal NAACP and ACLU, are acting together to push for radically changing who America imprisons.

Wasted Tax Dollars

Conservatives fret about the assault on liberty as laws and regulations mushroom. At America's start, there were just three federal crimes: counterfeiting, treason, and piracy. Now there are more than 4,400 federal crimes and more than 10,000 federal regulations that include criminal penalties.

Today, a person no longer must have criminal intent to be sent to jail. They just need to have crossed one of many thousands of lines drawn up by federal regulators.

Conservatives also often talk about the money wasted.

"How much do we spend on incarceration?" Grover Norquist, with the Americans for Tax Reform, asked at a joint news conference of liberals and conservatives in the nation's capital.

"Are we getting our money's worth? What is the cost benefit analysis when someone gets sentenced to prison?" he asked.

Crime doesn't pay, but neither does punishing it. For instance, dollar for dollar, drug treatment is seven times more effective than prison.

Both sides agree prison time wastes tons of taxpayer dollars and human capital as it imprisons and warps people who could otherwise still contribute to society.

'A School for Crime'

"The skills they learn to survive inside our violent prisons make them more dangerous when they get out," Prison Fellowship Vice President Pat Nolan told CBN News.

"So we're undercutting public safety by sending low-risk offenders to prison," he said.

"I've called it a school for crime," Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson said. "That's exactly what goes on in prison: They teach each other."

"It's time to switch," NAACP President Ben Jealous, a leading prison reform advocate, agreed. "It's time to stop being tough and stupid. It's time to be smart and safe."

"We have prisons for people we're afraid of, but we've been filling them with folks we're just mad at," Nolan said.

Nolan and Colson have a visceral understanding of this issue since both served time themselves.

Wasted Talent

Colson played the role of ruthless operative in Richard Nixon's White House.

Becoming a convict for his role in the Watergate scandal humbled him. He surrendered his life to Christ but he found most of his time behind bars a tragic waste.  

"I was in prison in Maxwell, Ala.," Colson told CBN News. "I was running the washing machine next door to the former chairman of the board of directors of the American Medical Association. He was running the dryer."

Colson said they lost their freedom, but society lost a lot, too, as the duo did nothing but wash and dry clothes.

"It was ridiculous," he stated. "I could have been helping inmates who were poor and needed legal services or former inmates. He could have been delivering babies in the city. There are all kinds of alternatives."

Punishing Criminals, Taxpayers

Colson believes crime must be punished. 

"But the taxpayers don't have to be punished in the process," Prison Fellowship founder  told CBN News. 

"When you put a guy like me in prison, you're spending $40,000 a year to support that person. He's not producing a thing. He could be producing things and paying back his victims. Restitution!"

Prison Fellowship's Nolan once led the Republicans in the California Assembly before pleading guilty to a federal corruption charge and going to prison.

He firmly believes non-violent offenders like he was can still be useful if they're punished out in the community.

"They can support a family," Nolan stated. "They can keep a job and pay taxes."

Prison Reform Successes

Some states, with tough-on-crime Texas taking the lead, are working to turn things around. The goal: imprison only the truly dangerous while punishing and rehabilitating everyone else on the outside.

"Over a billion dollars they've saved already,"  Nolan said of Texas.

The NAACP's Jealous said, "Texas really is Ground Zero for cooperation between Tea Party activists and NAACP activists on these issues."

"They (Texas) were able to take three prisons off the table that they had in the budget and use that money for drug treatment programs and mental health facilities for people in the community -- a third of it went to that. Two-thirds went to help solve their budget problems," Nolan said.  

This unique coalition points out that these states on the forefront of prison reform are saving money.

They're also seeing their crime rates drop lower than the states which keep building more prisons.

The fact that these reforms have brought the left and right together still raises eyebrows, like those of a legislator who once cornered Colson. 

Colson recalled the conversation for CBN News:

"He said, 'I thought you were a conservative.' I said, 'I am.'  He said, 'But aren't you for lock 'em up?' I said, 'Yeah, but not when they aren't doing anything dangerous to me," Colson said. "I just want to lock up dangerous people.'"

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Paul  Strand

Paul Strand

CBN News Washington Sr. Correspondent

As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington, D.C., bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress.  Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulStrandCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/PaulStrandCBN.