A call to resist mass incarceration

by Mary Ann McGivern

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Despite some sentencing changes, prison populations are creeping up. California released a number of inmates under court order to cease overcrowding. Federal and state law has reduced the sentencing guidelines for possession of crack cocaine to a number closer to powder cocaine possession (from 75 to 1 down to 17 to 1, though the two kinds of cocaine are about the same). Marijuana possession isn't being prosecuted in a lot of places.

Still, prison populations grew in the last year by 4,300. Missouri's prison population has grown from 30,000 to 32,000 over the last eight years. Why? Crime has dropped by about a third since 1980. Politicians run "tough on crime" campaigns, as if everyone who has gone before has been soft of crime. We keep lengthening sentencing. In response to a terrible shooting of a child, one Missouri state senator has just called for a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for any gun crime. Additionally, governors are appointing "tough on crime" parole board members, so there are fewer inmate releases.

Well, you say, this is exactly why the crime rate has decreased dramatically. But crime is a young man's game. After age 30, arrests drop precipitously. It is not because someone is serving a 15-year sentence and is off the streets that the crime rate for both violent and property crime has gone down. It's because men under 30 are committing fewer crimes.

Keeping people locked up is expensive. It does not enhance public safety. It disrupts the communities, urban and rural, where children grow up without fathers and women carry the burden of maintaining families. Turns out we are not a forgiving people.

October has been declared a month of resistance to mass incarceration, police terror, repression and the criminalization of a generation. These are strong words, a strong call by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network.

Talk about mass incarceration and police terror makes me squirm a little. But that doesn't make the accusations of repression and criminalization false. Read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. That would be a good way to participate in this October action.

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