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Monday, November 23, 2009

Prisoners Become Garbage in Pennsylvania

Remember years ago there was a garbage barge from New York that went floating along the Atlantic Ocean as it looked for a state to dump its load? No one wanted it.

Well, apparently in this country of ours, which incarcerates far too many people on innocent offenses, we do not have enough cells in each state to lock everyone up. So we are outsourcing incarceration, trading away prisoners from state to state. Pennsylvania has just joined the party, renting 2,000 prisoners to Michigan, which seems to have a host of empty prisons.

Here are two states headed in opposite directions on criminal justice reform. Michigan's incarceration rate is ninth in the U.S., but the state's leaders are changing that by expanding parole opportunities for nonviolent prisoners and engaging in innovative alternative to incarceration programs. They don't jail people for residue, and look for alternative choices when faced with drug abusers. In 2007, Michigan's prison population shrunk by 2.4% while Pennsylvania's grew by 3.7% ,

Pennsylvania's move deprives family members of access to their loved ones, limiting potential visitors and support networks. Many inmates will be moving over 600 miles, to the other side of Lake Erie. Their chances at improving their life decrease as they're moved further from their communities. It is not just unfair to prisoners in jail. It is unfair to their families who have done no wrong and do not deserve a sentence.

Overcrowding is a symptom of deeper problems in our criminal justice system, and states like Michigan have finally been struck with the inspiration to change incarceration policies at their root, rather than dealing with crowding after the fact. If only Florida were that bright. We are not. If only Broward County's prosecutors had more leeway. They do not. I fear that too much time in the sun has melted our brain.

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