A recent tweet from Bernie Sanders prompted this post.

Bernie is asking an essential question here about priorities and how we sustain and develop our people. For too long, our political vision has been shrunk by right-wing fear-mongering and this has led to detrimental results to our people and a real cost in human lives. Our disastrous military interventions under Reagan and both Bushes devastated large parts of the world. At home, mass incarceration has devastated many communities by redirecting funds from development activities towards prisons.

The title graphic of this diary is from a World Economic Forum post which begins:

Since 1990, state and local spending on prisons and jails has risen more than three times faster than spending on schools, according to a new Department of Education report released Thursday.

Driving that disparity is the unprecedented rise in the incarcerated population over that time period, due in large part to the drug war and mandatory minimum sentencing policies designed to lock people up for long periods of time. The United States is now home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of the world’s imprisoned people. — www.weforum.org/…

There is a long and complicated story behind US incarceration rates. Racial demagoguery combined with the war on drugs and mingled with draconian three strikes laws have led to mandatory, decades long sentences for many crimes, some non-violent. The end result is that the US now has the largest prison population in the world

A privatized network of prison operators and suppliers has lobbied to keep this system, and millions of Americans in jail. So have communities (many rural) where large prisons are located, most often jailing Americans from urban areas, often black/brown.

There are other factors that impact poor/minority Americans disproportionately. Discriminatory policing and prosecution of poor/minority communities, a predatory system of cash bail, a political class that has been unwilling to see prisoners’ humanity, among others

The end result is a system that holds 76 out of every 10,000 Americans in captivity at any given time. Where 13% of Americans are black, but 40% of American prisoners are. Where 6 million Americans have their right to vote stripped from them. Land of the free? I think not.

So called “fiscal conservatives” have long shoveled funds towards jails without compunction. Only now, after decades of draconian policies and millions of shattered lives are politicians finally reckoning with the human toll and opportunity cost of these policies. That is happening because an organized group of activists and a revitalized left have demanded answers. They’ve asked why

  1. “cost concerns” only rear their head when discussing financial support for needy families and never when discussing tax-cuts for billionaires.
  2. we always have funding for war, and never for health-care.
  3. we always have money for jails, and never enough for teachers and schools.

Leaders on the left are asking what these priorities say about commitment to developing the young people and human capital in this country.

Our general politics has finally caught up with the “far left” in recent years. What used to be derided as the concern of “gadflies” and “activists” is now seen as worth fighting for. 

At the local/state level, a wave of progressive prosecutors is showing how it is possible to use their offices to immediately remedy long-standing policies that have targeted poor/minority communities. The impact can be immediate as Wesley Bell, who was recently elected prosecutor for St. Louis county demonstrated. Bell immediately stopped prosecuting possession of marijuana under 100 grams, requesting cash bail for misdemeanors and barring prosecutors from threatening witnesses. On his second day, knowing that personnel is often policy, he fired the assistant prosecutor who presented grand jury evidence in the Michael Brown case.

Larry Krasner, who was a public defender for decades before he ran for DA in Philadelphia is another excellent example. On a tour of law schools this fall to recruit young prosecutors, the Philadelphia district attorney began his pitch at the University of Chicago by denouncing the profession he hoped many of the students would join. “Not all prosecutors have worked in the interest of justice,” Larry Krasner said. “They are retributive.” He drew out the word with an exaggerated Midwestern twang. “They are political. What they are involved with has elements of racism, classism, picking on the poor. What they do is connected not to the best but to the worst elements of policing.”

[…] The head of one of the country’s largest prosecutor’s offices was making the case that the most effective way to transform the criminal-justice system — to make it more just — was from a position of authority within that system. “A progressive D.A. is not the same thing as a traditional D.A.,” he told the law students. “You might call me a prosecutor with com-passion. Or a public defender with pow-er.”  […]

District attorneys wield the immense power to decide whether to charge someone with a crime or not, to determine the number and severity of charges and to essentially set prison terms in the bulk of cases that end in plea deals. Because of this discretion, district attorneys have contributed more than any other single class of elected officials to the quadrupling of the number of people incarcerated in the country since the 1980s. — www.nytimes.com/…

These are questions Bernie’s been asking for years. In 1991 and 1994, he was arguing against provisions of the crime bills proposed that year. He correctly labelled them a “grossly irrational set of priorities” and “a punishment bill, a retribution bill, a vengeance bill”. He’s done the same while he’s been active on social media as well. Along with many others, he has helped move the debate left on mass incarceration, just as he has on Medicare For All, a return to free state colleges, a living wage, and many other issues.

Hopefully, the tide has turned and we will never see the lust to appear tough on crime that so many politicians had for decades.  But as we work towards this new world of a more humane, more sensible, and less punitive system of justice, we should also ask why so many got caught up in the “tough on crime” ethos. 

Why did they not see what others saw? If their instincts and priorities were so wrong then, how can we trust them to have good instincts with other policy questions?

If they simply acquiesced to the political climate around them, how can we have confidence that they will make courageous, politically difficult questions in the future?

Governing is about setting priorities. Leadership is about setting priorities. If politicians are willing to accept conventional priorities, without considering morality or the human cost, they’re not leading, they following.

Schools vs. Jails. This should always have been an easy one for us.

Let us not allow ourselves to be beguiled ever again.

— @subirgrewal

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