Turning Bad Guys Into Good Guys

Turning Bad Guys Into Good Guys
Posted by FoM on February 13, 2000 at 19:55:16 PT
By Neal Peirce, Washington Post
Wisconsin's governor has ideas to help turn the tide against the ballooning of our nation's prison population, says Neal Peirce.It took Nixon to open the door to China. And it may take a Republican governor to tamp down, perhaps reverse the American incarceration craze that's pushing our prisoner total past 2 million this week.
Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, now in his fourth term, may be that Republican governor.A decade ago, Thompson forsook typical anti-welfare rhetoric. He began to ask welfare mothers about their real-life problems. Result: Wisconsin Works, the path-breaking program to get recipients working in exchange for critical transition aid.Wisconsin's measure set the terms for the federal welfare reform bill and the nationwide welfare-to-work reform.Now Thompson has a new cause -- prison reform."I'm not getting weak on crime. We've locked up a lot of bad guys," said Thompson, who has presided over more than a tripling of imprisonment in Wisconsin -- from 6,097 inmates in 1987 to roughly 20,000 today (including 4,000 parked in out-of-state prisons)."But," says Thompson -- and here's his vital new twist -- "we need to turn these bad guys back into good guys. Because we need them to fill jobs and support their families."The goal of increasing Wisconsin's supply of 21st-century workers fits a national pattern. Throughout the '80s and '90s, state and local governments were engaged in a frenetic hunt for any kind of new jobs they could land. In today's high-demand economy, that's outdated. The new thrust is to find the people (and skills) the new economy demands."Meeting our work force demands will force us to look at the sensitive issue of crime and punishment in a different light," says Thompson. "We need to take advantage of the talent and skills of each and every person in Wisconsin."So Thompson is telling his corrections department to target funds "so that no inmate will leave prison without being able to read and fill out a job application."Wisconsin is also setting up workhouses for prisoners with less than 12 months left to serve, placing them in real private sector jobs. "We hope employers will then be able to vouch these people are good workers, that they have skills," Thompson told me. "It's a way to rehabilitate, to reassimilate them back slowly into society."What's this? Rehabilitate? Reassimilate? Aren't those detested "R" words to the law-and-order politicians who've dominated public debate for 30 years? Prisons, they've told us, exist to punish; convicts are basically incorrigible; mandatory sentences and "three strikes" laws (Wisconsin has one) are the way to go.Thompson believes violent criminals need to be incarcerated; he credits imprisonment with driving Wisconsin's crime to a 30-year low.But is prison right for all offenders? No, Thompson argues: "I see 20,000 human beings locked up, at a public cost of $22,000 a year each. And I say, this is not working. Too many people are locked up who should be working and caring for their families."But how to get offenders into jobs, when they're drug- or alcohol-addicted? Thompson's willing to support drug rehab programs for first-time felony drug offenders -- youths 17 to 25 convicted of delivering or possessing cocaine, crack or marijuana. Under the Milwaukee-based program he backs, they get treatment, schooling, job training, as long as they weren't convicted of violence or gun use."Then they get into a job with intensive probation to watch over them and make sure they're working," Thompson adds. "If we can get that dependency cured, it will be a huge gain for the state."All this is as rational and sensible as it's rare among the states. Nationally, close to two-thirds of inmates are doing time for nonviolent offenses -- mostly drug-related.And we keep throwing up prisons. More than a third of a $370 million budget expansion just proposed by Michigan's Gov. John Engler, for example, will go toward prisons, with 5,453 new beds in two years. Colorado, which has spent $645million on new prisons, quintupling capacity since the late '80s, is now being told by officials that it needs 1,000 more high security beds for another $75 million.From Hawaii to Florida to New England and points intermediate, the story's the same. And increasingly, women are getting equal treatment. Their imprisonment rolls doubled in the '90s, even though most are put away for nonviolent crimes, have children at home, and suffer higher levels of HIV infection and mental illness than male prisoners.A fresh study from California shows young blacks and Latinos are much more likely to be sentenced to prison than whites who commit similar crimes -- another reminder of the deep racism infecting U.S. corrections practices today.Just like welfare had been, excessive incarceration is an ugly sore on our body politic. Reform is right because jobs need filling, because prisons are expensive, inefficient.But Thompson adds the ultimate reason: "It's the right thing to do."Published: February 13, 2000Spokane.netCannabisNews Wisconsin Articles, Prison Reform & DPFWI:Drug Policy Forum of Wisconsin:
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