Monday, August 24, 2015

Inequalities in Prison Terms in the U.S.

I was excited to read about the 25th anniversary of Friday Night Lights in the 8/3/15 issue of Sports Illustrated.  The book, movie and TV series are all held up as some of the best of all time.  But, almost as a side note, the article highlighted the inequalities of he criminal justice system.  Either the author didn't notice it or didn't want to turn his nostalgic article into a political article. Sports Illustrated missed a key opportunity to address an issue that society is struggling with right now. 

Person A- Abused by relatives.  Spent time in foster care.  High school football star.  School helped him cheat in high school so he could stay eligible to play football.  The help stopped once he was injured and couldn't play.  Flunked out of college. Charged with aggravated assault after hitting someone with a beer bottle during a fight.  No prior felony record.  Misdemeanors for driving without a license and failure to pay child support.  Given 10 years probation.  Stopped making regular visits to his parole officer.  Sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Person B- Family law firm.  High school football star.  Attended Harvard.  Joined family law firm.  Admitted starting a fight with his girlfriend and her ex-husband that escalated into a brawl.  B and two friends entered the ex-husband's house uninvited and continued fighting with the 8 people inside.  Charged with burglary with intent to commit assault- a serious felony.  Placed on 5 years probation and had his law license suspended for 5 years.

There is big difference here.  Why was one given 10 years probation and the other 5 years?  Was person A told that if he violated his parole he would then have an equal amount of jail time?  Did person A ever receive therapy to deal with his childhood hardships?  Person A didn't have the family support or resources that person B had.  Person B not only had a family of lawyers supporting him but the personal knowledge of the law to know what would happen if he didn't follow the rules.   

I am not advocating violating parole but there are too many people spending years in prison for non-violent offenses.  And more often than not, they aren't given therapy or skills in prison to cope with the real world once they get out so a lot of them end up coming back. 

It is hard to believe that race and economic status didn't play a role in the unequal treatment of the two men.  Person A is black and poor.  When he was injured and could no longer play for the football team, he was subjected to racism from the football staff and community.  The football team provided him with the support that he never had from his family.  Once that was gone, he was on his own again.

Person B is Hispanic and comes from a family that is prominent in the community.  I'd like to believe that person B would have been sentenced to prison if he violated his parole but it seems unlikely.  And if he was sentenced it probably wouldn't have been for 10 years. 

No matter what your background, there should be a set list of rules for offenses so that judges don't sentence poor, black people to longer sentences.  A good lawyer or a bad judge shouldn't decide someone's fate.  At some point the criminal justice system needs to stop solving everything with a trip to prison.  Rehabilitation will have to be a key part of  treatment.  The reason we have more people in prison than any other developed country is because people are in jail for non-violent offenses.  We put all of our money into building new prisons and very little on programs to prevent people from going into prison in the first place.