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Jail breakAmerica’s prisons are failing. Here’s how to make them work

A lot is known about how to reform prisoners. Far too little is done


SHIRLEY SCHMITT is no one’s idea of a dangerous criminal. She lived quietly on a farm in Iowa, raising horses and a daughter, until her husband died in 2006. Depressed and suffering from chronic pain, she started using methamphetamine. Unable to afford her habit, she and a group of friends started to make the drug, for their own personal use. She was arrested in 2012, underwent drug treatment, and has been sober ever since. She has never sold drugs for profit, but federal mandatory minimum rules, along with previous convictions for drug possession and livestock neglect, forced the judge to sentence her to ten years in prison. Each year she serves will cost taxpayers roughly $30,000—enough to pay the fees for three struggling students at the University of Iowa. When she gets out she could be old enough to draw a pension.

Barack Obama tried to reduce the number of absurdly long prison sentences in America. His attorney-general, Eric Holder, told federal prosecutors to avoid seeking the maximum penalties for non-violent drug offenders. This reform caused a modest reduction in the number of federal prisoners (who are about 10% of the total). Donald Trump’s attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, has just torn it up. This month he ordered prosecutors to aim for the harshest punishments the law allows, calling his new crusade against drug dealers “moral and just”. It is neither.

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Summary | 12 Annotations
along with previous convictions for drug possession and livestock neglect, forced the judge to sentence her to ten years in prison.
2017/05/31 03:42
Each year she serves will cost taxpayers roughly $30,000—enough to pay the fees for three struggling students at the University of Iowa
2017/05/31 03:42
prosecutors to avoid seeking the maximum penalties for non-violent drug offenders. This reform caused a modest reduction in the number of federal prisoners
2017/05/31 03:42
Donald Trump’s attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, has just torn it up. This month he ordered prosecutors to aim for the harshest punishments the law allows,
2017/05/31 03:43
The more people a country imprisons, the less dangerous each additional prisoner is likely to be. At some point, the costs of incarceration start to outweigh the benefits
2017/05/31 03:44
Money spent on prisons cannot be spent on other things that might reduce crime more
2017/05/31 03:45
Its incarceration rate rose fivefold between 1970 and 2008. Relative to its population, it now locks up seven times as many people as France, 11 times as many as the Netherlands and 15 times as many as Japan
2017/05/31 03:45
because mass incarceration breaks up families and renders many ex-convicts unemployable, it has raised the American poverty rate by an estimated 20%
2017/05/31 03:46
Reserve prison for the worst offenders. Divert the less scary ones to drug treatment, community service and other penalties that do not mean severing ties with work, family and normality
2017/05/31 03:46
For a fraction of the cost of locking them up, they could be fitted with GPS-enabled ankle bracelets that monitor where they are and whether they are taking drugs.
2017/05/31 03:47
. A study in Argentina finds that low-risk prisoners who are tagged instead of being incarcerated are less likely to reoffend
2017/05/31 03:47
Cognitive behavioural therapy—counselling prisoners on how to avoid the places, people and situations that prompt them to commit crimes—can reduce recidivism by 10-30%, and is especially useful in dealing with young offenders.
2017/05/31 03:48