Tag: prison reform

The Problem With Online Petitions

At LGM, I recently suggested that readers support a Department of Justice Rule-making process on prison reform. I probably should have added that it’s not enough – not nearly enough – to simply log into the Change.org site and click “send” on the form letter they offer.

That’s because DoJ doesn’t care how many individual constituents support or oppose prison reform per se. They couldn’t care less, in fact. All they care about is how to create the best possible set of rules, so what they want most are informed, carefully thought out, unique comments.

Congress cares about numbers, of course. Congress’s job is to pass laws, and because we elect our congressional leaders they care a great deal about the popularity of those laws.

Federal agencies are pretty much the reverse. They are tasked with implementing laws, and they are staffed by civil servants. Their job is not to get re-elected, it is to figure out how to produce collective goods.

Citizen input in federal rule-makings is not about the popularity of a particular rule. Rather, it’s about more heads being better than few – it’s about tapping the experiential, procedural, scientific and everyday expertise of the American people. The federal rule-making process is one of the truly deliberative mechanisms in our country. What the public comment process is supposed to produce is useful substantive citizen input on what the rule should look like.

What does this have to do with online petitions?

Well, because federal agencies don’t care about quantity of comments, only quality, a form letter written by Change.org and submitted by you and 500,000 others is worth exactly one comment no matter how many times it’s sent – precisely the opposite of Congress.

You can probably see the grand irony here. The genius of websites like Change.org is that they make sending a letter to your government easy, thereby potentially increasing the level of citizen participation. But because clicking a form letter is so easy, citizens have powerful disincentives to write substantive comments where such form letters are available, even in cases – federal rule-makings – where such a comment would actually be read and considered valuable. For example, researchers studying the 2004 EPA mercruy rule-making found that the vast majority of comments submitted to the EPA through were are either identical form letters or contained extremely minor modifications.

Not only is this a waste of citizen time and effort, but this influx of meaningless form letters actually makes it harder for federal civil servants to identify the few useful comments sent in by citizens to their government that could actually aid their decision-making about a particular rule.

So, here’s the moral of the story: Anytime you go to signal your opinion on an online petition, first figure out if it’s going to Congress or to a federal agency. If it’s Congress, sheer numbers count and substance is discounted – so save yourself time and simply click yes or no. But if it’s a federal agency – EPA, DoJ, DoT, FCC – be sure to alter the letter as much as possible, and write an informed, substantive comment. For example, if you support prison reform, write about what prison reform rules should look like and why, or ways in which DoJ can actually improve on the NPREC recommendations, and encourage others to do the same.

The same is true for many, many other issues about which progressives care deeply. Biomass for Fuel. Polar Bears. Net neutrality.

Sure, use the above websites to formulate your opinion. Use their online form to submit it. But delete the form letter and put it in your own words. (And not just any words. No emotional rants. No insults in all caps. No accusations of immoral behavior. No threats. It’s not that public officials care about these things; it’s that they couldn’t care less and letters like that just make it harder for them to find the useful, substantive comments that they need to make the best rules.)

Citizens unwilling or unable to take the time to write their own substantive letters can far better serve our democracy if they engage the Congressional process where it’s the absolute numbers of voters taking a certain position that matters, rather than gumming up the rule-making process with duplicative comments. And organizations aiming to increase citizen input to government should be thinking harder about to improve the quality of that participation, not just the quantity.

[cross-posted at LGM]

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Two More Ideas About Prison Reform


After posting on prison reform last night, I opened the NYTimes this morning to find Nicholas Kristof agrees with me.:

“At a time when we Americans may abandon health care reform because it supposedly is “too expensive,” how is it that we can afford to imprison people like Curtis Wilkerson?”

Wilkerson is the man to whom I referred serving a life sentence for stealing socks.

I outlined a variety of problems with our prison system including inhumane conditions; Kristof focuses on something I missed which is cost-effectiveness:

“Look, there’s no doubt that many people in prison are cold-blooded monsters who deserve to be there. But over all, in a time of limited resources, we’re overinvesting in prisons and underinvesting in schools.

Indeed, education spending may reduce the need for incarceration. The evidence on this isn’t conclusive, but it’s noteworthy that graduates of the Perry Preschool program in Michigan, an intensive effort for disadvantaged children in the 1960s, were some 40 percent less likely to be arrested than those in a control group.”

And as such, he calls attention to an “ingredient” for prison reform that I missed in my post: decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use:

“If we want to try a public health approach to drugs, we could learn from Portugal. In 2001, it decriminalized the possession of all drugs for personal use. Ordinary drug users can still be required to participate in a treatment program, but they are no longer dispatched to jail.

“Decriminalization has had no adverse effect on drug usage rates in Portugal,” notes a report this year from the Cato Institute. It notes that drug use appears to be lower in Portugal than in most other European countries, and that Portuguese public opinion is strongly behind this approach.

A new United Nations study, World Drug Report 2009, commends the Portuguese experiment and urges countries to continue to pursue traffickers while largely avoiding imprisoning users. Instead, it suggests that users, particularly addicts, should get treatment.”

Kristof also points out another positive development I missed during my travels: the introduction by Senator Jim Webb of legislation to create a National Criminal Justice Commission. The Act, which is now moving through Congress, will if passed create a Commission tasked to study and make recommendations that would address many (though not all) of the points addressed by myself and Kristof, and deserves our support.

Full text of the act is here. (Notably missing from its problem statement is the issue of voting rights for ex-offenders.) To support this legislation, contact Jim Webb’s office.

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Three Ideas for Fixing Our Prison System

The US needs prison reform as badly as it needs affordable health care.

I haven’t written about this before. Because America does such an excellent job of compartmentalizing its incarcerated population from its elite, those of us living in eastern urban areas rarely need to think about our prisons. Traveling across the wastelands of Kansas and Nebraska and Utah, however, where one is as likely to see a chain gang as an elk, and where the signs remind you not to pick up hitch-hikers instead of not to litter, one begins to give this some this thought. In 1998, the US surpassed the former Soviet Union as the world’s foremost jailer, with approximately 1 in 100 Americans behind bars as of last year. Compared to other advanced industrialized countries, the US imprisons 5 times more of its citizens per capita; half of these are African American.

The political economy of this “prison industrial complex” coupled with the political incentives to appear hard on crime have contributed to a dysfunctional and inhumane system. Our prisons are brutally overcrowded: in Chino, where a riot occurred early this month, 5,900 inmates were in a facility designed to hold 3,000. Treatment of prisoners often falls far below human rights standards. In June this year, Marcia Powell, a 48-year-old behind bars for prostitution, died of heat exhaustion after being left in an outdoor holding cell in 108-degree Arizona heat, prompting both an investigation by the Arizona’s Department of Corrections and questions by feminist activists as to why prositutes are being imprisoned in the first place, whereas those who make use of them rarely fall afoul of the law? Indeed, 82% inmates are imprisoned for non-violent “crimes”: thanks to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, one man is serving a life sentence in California for stealing a $2.50 pair of socks.

We should also bear in mind the impact on communities, families and society at large of such a highly-incarcerated population. As Vesla Weaver argued in a presentation I saw last Spring, incarceration shapes the lives not only of inmates but of their partners (who must now coordinate employment, social schedules and even their attire according to the rules attending prison visits), their children (many of whom lose parents for misdemeanors) and communities (who lose social capital when significant numbers of their young men are behind bars). The adverse effect of prison policies on families is too rarely a consideration in the political process.

I know much too little about this topic to offer anything like a comprehensive recipe for change, but here are three specific ways to improve things behind which readers of this blog can throw their support:

1) Federally enforce a zero tolerance policy on prison rape. In addition to sometimes-lethal physical and mental abuse, sexual abuse of inmates is not only commonplace but so acceptable in US society as to be fodder for political satire. (Interesting that what we are quick to condemn when inflicted on political prisoners is so easy to consider commonplace when targeted at those we consider “criminal.”) A a 2001 Human Rights Watch report showcased the epidemic of prison rape in the US. Congress responded by creating the Prison Elimination Act of 2003, largely designed to generate facts and recommendations. The Congressional National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, released its five-year study this past June, showing based on tens of thousands of interviews that nearly 60,000 inmates have suffered sexual abuse in prison. It also shows that more prisoners are abused by staff than by other inmates, and that gender minorities are at the greatest risk. The NPREC’s recommendations are that 5% of federal funding for prisons be contingent on states’ reduction in incidence rates in accordance with standards now being drafted by the Attorney General. But 5% may be much too low a penalty to check such well-entrenched abuse; and at any rate the federal government will also need to consider providing resources for states to implement the standards, which would involve a significant overhauling of prison culture.

2) Reform America’s sex-offender registry. Incarceration even for minor abuses has lasting effects even once a person leaves prison, due to stigma, lack of resources for reintegration, and political disenfranchisement. This is a broad problem but in no realm is it more dysfunctional the the national sex-offender registry, as outlined in a detailed and damning expose in The Economist. This system is a net which sweeps up so many people convicted under Puritanical US laws for things as minor as sleeping with a partner while both are underage, that it is rendered almost useless at the task of helping parents protect their children from genuine predators, yet it ruins the lives of not only “convicts” but their familes as well, preventing them from holding down jobs or taking their children to the playground. I concur with the proposals laid out in that article, which include:

“Instead of lumping all ‘sex offenders’ together on the same list for life, states should assess each person individually and include only real threats. Instead of posting everything on the internet, names could be held by the police, who would share them only with those, such as a school, who need to know. Laws that bar sex offenders from living in so many places should be repealed, because there is no evidence that they protect anyone: a predator can always travel. The money that a repeal saves could help pay for monitoring compulsive molesters more intrusively—through ankle bracelets and the like.”

3) Finally, restore voting rights to ex-cons.The patchwork of state laws disenfranchising over four million former felons from voting in federal elections nearly ensures that this population will be overlooked by the government. Last month, Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. John Conyers introduced parallel bills in the House and Senate that would restore voting rights in federal elections to those currently denied this civil right. I can see nothing to lose from such a proposal and much to gain: citizens more likely to have a stake in the rule of law, a government more responsive to its incarcerated population, and a nation better served overall by a more humane criminal justice system. You can support this action by clicking here or linking to this post.

I could go on – and so can you, in comments. Point is, health care reform has dominated the headlines this summer, and it is of course widely overdue. But let’s not lose sight of glaring problems in the criminal justice system, and incremental changes underway that need our attention, support and oversight as well.

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