Break the Chains: America Is Ripe for Prison Reform

America's penal system needs a top-to-bottom overhaul -- and a movement of people ready to do something about it is taking shape nicely.

More than 2.3 million people are now behind bars in America -- either in federal or state prisons or local jails -- a larger proportion of the population than in any other civilized nation and a 500% increase since 1980.

Another five million are under some kind of supervision, like parole, probation or house arrest, for a grand total of more than seven million human beings.

Responsible voices within the penal industry -- from wardens and corrections officials to cops, prosecutors and judges -- are saying publicly that locking up so many people doesn't improve public safety.

Since 1980, crime rates have gone up and then down -- violent crime rates have been plunging since 1993. No matter the trend, the prison numbers marched upward.

In 1980, we had 139 prisoners for every 100,000 people; by the end of 2007 the number had exploded to 506 per 100,000 and growing.

A disturbing racial imbalance pervades the penal system. As far back as 1997, federal statistics showed 9% of the black population under some form of correctional supervision, compared with 2% of whites.

Fast forward to 2009, and the numbers haven't much changed. Every stage of law enforcement targets blacks in grossly disproportionate numbers, from arrest to incarceration.

It's most obvious when you look at the war on drugs. Whites and blacks use hard drugs at roughly equal rates, but blacks are about three times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses.

When federal laws were passed that punish crack at significantly greater rates than powder cocaine, 80% of the defendants charged under the tough laws were black.

One well-known case, that of Kemba Smith, resulted in a 24-year sentence for a first offense. She was released after six years when President Bill Clinton commuted the sentence.

There is, unfortunately, a callous indifference in many sectors of society to the insanity of it all, the waste and futility and unfairness.

That's the bad news. The good news is there's a growing consensus that the nation has gone too far -- and that we must stop putting so much stress on our budgets and our morals.

Blizzards of books, papers, think tanks and forward-looking local officials have been pressing for reform over the last decade.

Colorado State Senators Morgan Carroll and Pat Steadman and Rep. Mark Ferrandino lead the way in introducing many new bills to induce cost-saving prison reform measures without jeopardizing public safety.

In these budget-crunching times savings induced from prison reform, can be utilized in other, more vital areas of state government, such as education.

I recently spent a lively evening in discussions among scholars, activists and formerly incarcerated people at a conference sponsored by Pew Institute and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. The consensus among the experts is that change is not only overdue but inevitable. In many cases, it has already begun.

Take the case of felony disenfranchisement. Most states have a bewildering thicket of laws and rules that keep an estimated five million ex-prisoners from registering and voting -- even though they can in many cases. Florida is the worst offender of this practice; they just passed a law for all ex-felons to wait at least five years to have their voting rights reinstated.

But since 2009, 19 states have changed laws and procedures to make it easier for ex-prisoners to regain the right to vote.

Five states have created racial-disparity panels to examine whether, how and when defendants are being sentenced without regard to skin color.

New York leaders have begun poring over a thick report, published by a special state sentencing commission, which calls for a range of reform. After years of pressure, judges are getting more leeway to sentence drug-addicted offenders to treatment rather than prison.

Moreover, cash-strapped state governments are finally listening to reformers who say it's better -- and cheaper -- to pay for job and recreation programs than for prison cells.

The end is in sight for our nation's long, unhealthy love affair with mass incarceration. It's time to break the chains, and not a moment too soon.

Michael J. McCarthy lives in Denver. Michael is a member of the Colorado Press Association and the Denver Press Club. Contact at: