I recently decided to end my attempt to transform America’s social problems from the bottom up. Therefore, I’m planning to write a series of communiqués to the most important man on the planet: the President of the United States of America. The following is the third letter in the series…
Dear Mr. President,
I hate to admit it! Nevertheless, I believe a great evil haunts America’s justice system. Although we try to hide it behind barbed wire fences and concrete walls, there is widespread sickness in our courts. It is a problem that infects cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. The fact is there are two kinds of justice in America: one for the rich who can afford bail and a good attorney, and an incredibly different form of justice for the poor, who can’t afford bail and are given a public defender. America’s justice structure is trapped between two ages, and two classes.
Thousands of disadvantaged prisoners are suffocating in the savagery of an outdated and archaic legal system. This is an extremely vicious cycle, and something should be done to end it. I believe Lady Justice must no longer turn a blind eye, as well as remove the thirty silver pieces weighing down her scales. America’s judicial system must strive for impartiality, evenhandedness and integrity for all its citizens, prosperous or poor.
We are spending billions of dollars each year on our prison problem. However, as you already recognize, more shackles and larger jails are not the solution to crime. The answer, of course, is an enhanced educational system and better jobs. We need to instill a pride of community and self-worth in our “at risk” children and young adults. We must also need to provide more leadership, guidance along with job training for our underprivileged offspring who are often tempted by the glory of gangs and the smell of easy money.
At present there are over two million people in America’s detention centers. If they were all together in one place it would be one of the most populated cities in this country. And, according to The Sentencing Project, America’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world. You can bank on it; without some kind of change in our current perspective, the prison population will continue to rise regardless of the tremendous cost to the tax paying public. Moreover, as you know, our prison system is an iniquitous merry-go-round. Each day thousands of dejected and penniless convicts are released from our country’s prisons and jails, most of them without job skills, or any kind of honest employment waiting for them on the outside.
Even if these former convicts wanted to go straight, they frequently feel they have no choice but to go back into crime. You see, after conviction of a drug felony (under 21 U.S.C. 862a) the criminal can no longer obtain state programs funded under the Social Security Act or Federal Food Stamp Act. Subsequently, they felt doomed and often attempted to make money by street crime – or dealing drugs!
What’s more, these drug dealers are not always making big money. Current research finds the average drug dealer only makes $24,000 a year. Just calculate this: it costs an average of around $30,000 to house a person in prison. If we could just offer employment in building up America to half of our present convicts and allow them to earn $25,000 a year, we would be saving a good deal of money while building America’s infrastructure.
Don’t get me wrong, Mr. President! I’m not excusing drug dealers or saying it is right to break the law. I only know that sometimes when a man feels desperate, it often clouds his judgment.
As we both know not every criminal can be saved from a life of corruption and vice. Some convicts are just too far into crime to come back and function in society. Others have been treated so badly that as a result, they have become too brutal and violent to change. Scores of men and women could be saved from this horrific life if we will just educate them with useful job skills, then help them find decent employment.
Moreover, this is what I find truly outrageous: it costs annually more to send a young man to jail then it does for him to attend Yale. It’s too bad, because many of these young men are smart and should be going to Penn State, not the state pen.
Kevin P. McKenna
Executive Director, IDEAS
Kevin McKenna is a filmmaker/ social scientist and the Executive Director of IDEAS (Investigative Documentaries Educating American Society), a 501c non-profit corporation. If you have any comments or ideas or need more information please call him at (818) 588-3047 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.