Sunday, January 25, 2004


TChris is guest-hosting at Talk Left and posted a great editorial by one of the best on the bench, Federal District Court Judge Nancy Gertner. I can't claim to know her well, however I did deal with her back when she was still a practicing attorney and have been following her rise through the judicial hierarchy ever since. She's been a wise and courageous jurist and I would love to see her fill the next vacancy on the First Circuit.

Her editorial addresses Bush's proposal to increase the funding for programs designed to assist inmates in re-entering private life. Judge Gertner notes the thought is laudable but the current policies offer too little, too late.

I have seen the impact of imprisonment on the human beings I sentence. As a federal judge, I take pains to monitor these men and women after their release from prison. I visit the programs that our Probation Office uses for ex-offenders to support their efforts to restart their lives.

She notes retraining is a difficult task, made almost impossible by mandatory minimum sentencing and BoP's policy on releasing the inmates into the programs such as half-way houses.

The problem is that the policies our government has implemented, long before those prison gates are open, undermine a prisoner's opportunity for a second chance. Too many prisoners are serving sentences that are too long under conditions that are not remotely conducive to rehabilitation. We must change our approach long before reentry.

....Lengthy prison terms undermine an offender's chances for a meaningful life after prison. They destroy communities and decimate families that are already struggling, especially in our inner-cities. And from those decimated communities comes more crime.

....On Christmas Eve 2002, the Bureau of Prison announced that it would no longer place offenders who are six months before the end of their prison term to half-way houses; they now must wait until they have reached the last 10 percent of their terms, no matter how short a time that is. Nor would the bureau allow nonviolent offenders sentenced to short terms to be placed in the halfway houses either.

The halfway houses (which cost the taxpayer far less than keeping inmates caged) are now closing for lack of referrals and Bush wants to replace them with "faith based" groups. (I wonder if he means all those evangelists like Jimmy Swaggart that used to be on television?) The Honorable Judge suggests this is unlikely to bridge the gap.

In fact, talk of "reentry" seems to many to be a cruel joke in a society where the race to punish has made it next to impossible for ex-offenders to get public assistance or qualify for a host of government programs.

I think Bush is just paying lip service to the issue but I am glad he's addressing it. With well over two million people in some kind of prison, and close to half of those in the federal system being non-violent offenders, prison reform that allowed their release would spike the unemployment rolls. Better social services while they're incarcerated could solve that problem.


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