Bigger jails or bigger hearts

Nearly half a million people are now behind bars in the United States for nonviolent drug law violations, which is more than all of Western Europe — with a larger population — incarcerates for everything!

Our country also has the most religious denominations and has one of the highest rates for church attendance outside of the Muslim world.

What is wrong with this picture?

In the late 1980s the University of Colorado sponsored a survey seeking public opinion regarding building more prisons as a safety measure. The majority of respondents did not think more prisons would make them feel safer.

Many who reported they would feel safer with more prisons were employees or families of the police, sheriff and corrections departments. A conclusion could be that those working in criminal justice fields may have the most reasons to be fearful.

Are they afraid of traffic violators or DUI offenders, many of whom fill our jails, or is the fear predominately about nonviolent inmates who, upon release, may become violent?

Another conclusion could be one expressed by a local deputy sheriff who, several years ago, made this quip at a County Task Force meeting on Alternatives to Incarceration: “We are the only ones with job security around here!”

My El Paso County Criminal Justice education began at those meetings, where I learned:

· Various groups were protecting their turf and were adverse to using alternatives if someone else was providing them.

· No one in the task force seemed to know if there were any local use of electronic monitoring.

· Illegal drug use and mandatory minimum sentences were the main reasons prison expansion was accelerating.

This year my experience as a representative on the Justice Advisory Council has reinforced earlier observations.

I have also learned there is an overcrowding situation because of increased numbers of women behind bars (many for drug-related offenses), unfortunately indicating more children become social service statistics and likely future juvenile detainees.

There is general agreement, at least in one subcommittee, that jail alternatives such as PR bond release and electronic monitoring, along with behavioral and addiction counseling, could be utilized to a much greater degree for nonviolent offenders. Such modalities have proven successful and very cost effective in other jurisdictions.

And judges need to be better informed about available sentencing alternatives.

Common sense dictates that other solutions be tried if the $40 billion we have been spending annually in the United States to solve the drug problem remains unsuccessful. We need to stop protecting and enhancing a system that has failed over and over again.

It is time to bring about change. To do so, we must all become informed about city and county budgets and the percentage of our tax dollars being spent on criminal justice issues compared to quality of life matters that provide the following:

Health and wellness assistance for those unable to afford health insurance; free recreational opportunities in public parks and trails for residents and visitors; public transit to help our youth, elderly and disabled get to these important destinations and to help ex-inmates get to their jobs; and places to park and connect with a bus, lessening roadway congestion.

We must request the media provide complete and unbiased local government information in a timely fashion.

We must contact county commissioners as well as City Council members, giving them our perspectives on issues and ideas for solutions while demanding accountability.

We also need to contact our federal and state General Assembly members and seek changes to legislation that has contributed to our problems instead of improving the health, safety and welfare of all.

Finally, we must examine our own motivations toward and involvement with the less fortunate in our community and resolve to assist small groups and agencies that are helping people help themselves.

(Printed in YOUR TURN, THE INDEPENDENT, December 19, 2002)

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