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When Neither Crime Nor Punishment Pays

The way we have chosen to deal with crime is leading our nation away from its highest ideals and producing results that stand in stinging contradiction to who we claim to be.
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In barbershops and boardrooms, in newspaper headlines and presidential debates, Americans are questioning the billions of dollars a month being spent on a failing war, and the current "surge" in Iraq.

But we, policy-makers at every level of government, should also be questioning the "domestic surge" at home in the so-called war on drugs and urban crime. There are more guns, more technology, more cameras scanning streets, and more money spent on jails, prisons and juvenile facilities every day. The cost to American taxpayers also rises every day.

The way we have chosen to deal with crime is leading our nation away from its highest ideals and producing results that stand in stinging contradiction to who we claim to be.

In the land of the free, we lock up a greater percentage of our population than any nation. The U.S. prison population has increased 91 percent in the past 15 years. More than 7 million Americans are under some form of state or federal correctional supervision, and this does not include the legions of Americans in county and city facilities.

Is this the America of which we dream?

Our societal resources pour into prisons and police budgets -- the numbers are staggering. Billions of dollars are spent annually around our state, with budget growth at a pace far beyond that of our economy. Newark spends over a quarter of its budget on police, courts and jails.

Is this the America of which we dream?

Our legal system is plundering conceptions of equality. In our America, one in three African- American men in their 20s is under some form of correctional supervision. New Jersey leads in racial disparities in incarceration; while 14 percent of New Jersey's population is black, more than 60 percent of its prison population is African-American.

Is this the America of which we dream?

Our correctional system does not correct. We are the worst nation on the globe for recidivism. After spending billions incarcerating people, we release them only to see one in every two ex-offenders return in three years. We are forcing our proud law enforcement community to engage in a profound cyclical absurdity of arresting, re-arresting and re-re-arresting the same individuals time and time again.

Is this the America of which we dream?

Our nation is not expending all of these national resources on violent offenders. The majority of the Americans clogging our courts and prisons are nonviolent offenders primarily engaged in the use, sale or distribution of drugs. Violent or not, offenders should face punishment -- whether they throw litter on a Newark street or come to a Newark street to buy heroin. But when the punishment perpetuates the problem, when it destroys lives instead of correcting them, when it saps taxpayers of their precious resources, when it perpetuates the hideous legacy of racial injustice, when it aggravates cycles of poverty and undermines the very principles we seek to uphold, we must seek change.

Is this the America of which we dream? One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all?

We arrest teenagers for drug dealing and drug use at an alarming rate. But we make little, if any, investment in alternatives to existing detention programs, or in drug treatment, counseling, or intensive mentoring and education. Instead, we lock up these young people and release them back into our communities and the cycle begins anew, with re-arrest often within a matter of days or weeks.

New Jersey's largest juvenile facility is in Essex County and based in Newark. The former warden told me that three of four incarcerated youth have been at the Essex County facility before. Yet upon re lease, we put them right back into the environment that created the juvenile drug user or dealer. As a nation, we then wash our hands of any obligation and shake our heads when that 14-year-old youth offender becomes a 20-year-old offender and is once again clogging our jails.

When an adult is released and sincerely wants to stay out of prison, he faces a host of barriers to success that we do little to address. Ex-offenders are ineligible for numerous public assistance programs. They are stripped of their driving privileges, which might allow them to get to work; even if their driving privileges have not been revoked, they cannot obtain a commercial driver's license. They are entangled in a host of legal challenges, from parking tickets that turned into warrants for their arrest while they were in jail to child-support payments that have accrued to tens of thousands of dollars.

These Americans have a host of urgent needs, from housing to hunger and, of course, to children and families that desperately need their help. And as they try to meet these needs, they face a nearly insurmountable hurdle -- a community stigma that prevents many employers from hiring them.

I meet dozens of men every week with dramatic and painful stories of what they have been doing to survive, stay out of trouble and try to maintain financial stability. I see their sense of personal victory that they have resisted the easy, yet dangerous, call back to criminal activity that can afford quick but costly answers to their financial needs. However, I also see their frustration that, despite years of walking the right path, they still face a persistent punishment that costs them the right to return to society as a full and productive member and is depriving America of an enormous swath of its potential human talent. New Jersey's narrow expungement laws have men caught selling drugs in their 20s still paying the price in their 30s, 40s and 50s.

Enough. As mayor of our state's largest city I have decided to join with others to do whatever is necessary for a dramatic change in crime and prisoner re-entry policy at every level of government. In the coming weeks, we will announce a series of changes we will make here in Newark to reverse this travesty; however, as important as they are, they will not be enough to adequately alter the devastating course on which we find ourselves.

We live in a profoundly interconnected world, with interwoven destinies. This is not an urban problem or a suburban problem. It is not a black problem or a white problem. If we continue on the path we have chosen in the years and decades ahead, all of New Jersey will feel greater and greater pain and be forced to pay the ever- increasing price. American greatness has always required sacrifice, but we have been sacrificing and bleeding in the most senseless fashion, diminishing our nation's glory and strength. Now more than ever we must be united for broad- based reform. Now more than ever we must be the America of which we dream.

Originally published in the New Jersey Star-Ledger

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