Former Georgia congressman turned Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich is among a group of big name conservatives supporting a new NAACP study pushing for a major criminal justice system overhaul.
The former U.S. House speaker has joined other fellow conservatives in promoting the civil rights organization’s latest report, highlighting racial disparities in incarceration rates and the imbalance between prison funding and education spending around the country. Dubbed “Misplaced Priorities,” it asserts there is an inverse relationship between exploding prison budgets and massive cutbacks in public higher education funding.
“Over the past 20 years, nationwide spending on higher education increased by 21 percent, while corrections funding increased by 127 percent,” said Robert Rooks, director of NAACP Criminal Justice Programs. “Even during the recession, education budgets dropped while a majority of states have continued to increase the amount they spent on prisons. During that same time we’ve seen higher education costs in states being shifted to working families.”
Rooks said it is time for a major paradigm shift in regards to the nation’s criminal justice practices. “The same political and social force that we used to increase the prison population is the same that we need now to better our educational system,” he said. Gingrich and fellow conservative colleagues, including former President George Bush’s Secretary of Education Rod Paige, Americans for Tax Reform founder Grover Norquist and Mike Jiminez of the executive committee of Corrections USA, a national organization that represents corrections officers, have rallied behind the report. The NAACP contends that costly incarceration rates have not significantly improved public safety and to some degree have compromised it. Among proponents the overarching sentiment is that it is time to explore more cost-effective alternatives, particularly for non-violent offenders.
“If our prison policies are failing half of the time, and we know that there are more humane alternatives — especially alternatives that do not involve spending billions more on more prisons — it is time to fundamentally rethink how we treat and rehabilitate our prisoners,” Gingrich wrote in a statement read during a Washington D.C. news conference led by NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous earlier this month. “Conservatives, such as myself, should not consider criminal justice reform off-limits and I am pleased that our movement has begun to tackle these issues head-on.”
Pat Nolan, vice president of the Landsdowne, Virginia-based conservative non-profit, Prison Fellowship, agreed with his colleague. They are both part of the burgeoning Right On Crime movement that also includes former U.S. Attorney Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Ed Meese. Nolan, a former Republican leader of the California Assembly, had previously spent years in a federal prison for racketeering.
“The fact of the matter is that we’re going to spend $68 billion on corrections costs in this country this year; that’s 300 percent more than we did 25 years ago and the public isn’t any safer,’’ said Prison Fellowship Spokeswoman Kimberly N. Alleyne. “We’re focused on it from the spending standpoint. It’s the second fastest growing expense; second only to Medicare. It’s time to stop talking about being tougher on crime and instead get smarter on crime.” continue >>
Along with failing to keep society safer overall, Alleyne said mass incarceration also tends to result in more dangerous prisons. Many non-violent offenders tend to leave prison more violent than when they entered, she said. “One of the consequences of overspending on prisons is overcrowding which often leads to rape,” she said. “It is estimated that 216,000 adults and juveniles are forcibly raped in American prisons and jails every year. That comes out to about 600 adults and juveniles getting raped in prisons and jails every day.”
Juvenile justice system reform is also a major part of the growing discussion on the issue, as it costs more to incarcerate children than adults.
“The national average is $88,000 per youth offender,” Rooks said, referring to the costs for providing housing, medical treatment, education and security for child offenders. “We aren’t suggesting that less money be spent per child, the broader issue is looking at how we are currently spending that $88,000 on a child with a wide range of issues.”
Rooks cited Harrisburg, Pa., as a worse case scenario. “This year $1.5 billion was diverted from education funding there while two new prisons are being built,” he said. Rooks said the juvenile justice system has steadily grown harsher.
“Over the past 20 to 30 years we have seen increased criminalization of our youth,” he said. “We live in a society that criminalizes its people more and more. Children are getting arrested and being brought to court for the same offenses that used to land you in the principal’s office when I was a kid.”
Georgia has joined in the prison reform debate. Gov. Nathan Deal announced earlier this year his plans to assemble a new bi-partisan council to study criminal justice reforms and make recommendations to a joint legislative committee by next January. Georgia has the fourth highest incarceration rate of adults in the nation, costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year.
Among some the NAACP report’s key findings are:
• In most major cities, a significant portion of the prison population hails from a small number of low-income communities.“Millions of dollars are being spent every year to incarcerate a high number of people from just a few neighborhoods,” Rooks said.
• The majority of people incarcerated – in some communities as much as 60 percent – are abuse victims or are suffering from mental health conditions. “Prisons have become a place for warehousing people who have been physically and sexually abused or those with substance abuse problems or mental health issues,” Rooks said.
• More than half of the women in state prisons had been physically or sexually abused prior to their incarceration. “What we’re saying is that there is another way we can address these issues other than mass incarceration,” said Rooks.
• Most incarcerated people are behind bars for non-violent offenses. “We’re doing this to non-violent offenders and putting them in the position where they’ve got to defend themselves [from violent offenders in prison],” Rooks said. “Our over investment into prisons as a nation has created a political incentive for politicians to feel the need to show they are being ‘tough on crime’ by instituting get-tough policies that ultimately don’t make us any safer.”
Both Rooks and Alleyne agreed that there is room for everyone on all sides of the political spectrum to get behind the prison reform issue. “This is not about party lines; this is something that we all can agree on,” Alleyne said. “We all can agree that we care about public safety and spending. This is an across the aisle issue.”
The report is part of NAACP’s “Smart and Safe Campaign,” a nationwide effort to influence state budgets and a push to shift prison spending to education. The NAACP is also launching a multi-city billboard campaign that will feature criminal justice statistics, such as the fact that the U.S. accounts for five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners.