Jailbroken: 5 ways to fix the USA’s prisons By Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel

Posted: July 19, 2011 in News and politics

Cal Thomas is a
conservative columnist. Bob Beckel is a
liberal Democratic strategist. But as longtime friends, they can often find
common ground on issues that lawmakers in Washington cannot.


  • Fish bowl: Inmates sit in crowded conditions at the California Institute for Men in Chino. The Supreme Court ruled that the state's prison system is "incompatible with the concept of human dignity."APFish bowl: Inmates sit in crowded conditions at the California
    Institute for Men in Chino. The Supreme Court ruled that the state’s prison
    system is “incompatible with the concept of human


Fish bowl: Inmates sit in crowded conditions at the California
Institute for Men in Chino. The Supreme Court ruled that the state’s prison
system is “incompatible with the concept of human


Today: Our broken prison system.

Cal: If ever there was a wake-up call that the U.S.
prison system is broken, it came in late spring when the U.S.
Supreme Court
ruled that California must reduce its overcrowded prison system by 30,000 inmates. The
court ruled 5-4 that the state’s system was “incompatible with the concept of
human dignity.”

Bob: Only a court could pull off that trick. Imagine
a politician — say, a governor — announcing that plan. He or she would be
jobless come election day.

Cal: And that’s the problem. Democrats and
Republicans both tend to hold ideological positions when it comes to prisons,
and what we’re left with is people being warehoused rather than rehabilitated.
Billions of dollars are being wasted in the process.

Bob: In addition to the California crisis, New York
Gov. Andrew
, a Democrat, recently announced plans to close seven prisons. He’s trying to put a dent in the
state’s $10 billion budget deficit.

Cal: In the past, conservatives like me might have
accused the governor of being soft on crime or coddling criminals. No more. This
is an instance in which I agree with Cuomo.

Bob: Conservative enlightenment at last! Good for
you. Knowing that our state prisons are brimming with convicts and that states
don’t have the resources to build more facilities, push has finally come to

Cal: So what to do? We can’t simply swing open the

Bob: No, but we could begin to assess which inmates
are a true threat to society. If they’re in for non-violent crimes such as drug
possession for personal use, do they need to be behind bars? No.

Cal: The United States has roughly 2 million people incarcerated in federal, state and local
prisons or jails. That’s the equivalent of New
‘s entire population and more than any other country. It’s time to re-examine the
philosophy behind incarceration. We continue to apply a 19th century “solution”
to a 21st century problem.

Bob: The first thing we need to do is figure out how
to rehabilitate prisoners and restore them as productive members of society.

Cal: Agreed.

Bob: Most prisoners return to prisons after they are
released. Why? Are they simply hardened miscreants with no work skills, or do
they only become hardened after their time behind bars? I strongly suspect that
when many first-timers are sent to overcrowded, violent prisons, they leave
there damaged and handicapped by the system.

Cal: According to the Commission on Safety and
Abuse in America’s Prisons
, 67% of former prisoners are re-arrested, and 52%
are re-incarcerated. Our 5,000 prisons and jails cost taxpayers $60 billion a
year. Not a great return on investment.

Bob: This is where we can find some common ground.
That’s a huge sum of money, and I can’t imagine any liberal or conservative
could convincingly argue that we couldn’t do better.

Cal: So we move many of the non-violent offenders
more quickly through the system. What else?

Bob: A big part of the overcrowding problem is
mandatory sentencing guidelines your conservative pals love so much. Judges at
the state and federal level have complained for years about this. Justice
shouldn’t be based on a template. In many cases, offenders deserve shorter
sentences or alternative rehabilitation programs, but the judge’s hands are

Cal: You’re right, but in my and my fellow
conservatives’ defense, we reacted — overreacted — to you liberals who were as
soft as marshmallows on criminals. “Promise to be good, and you can go on your
way.” One of government’s most important roles is to protect the people, and too
many squishy-soft governors failed that test.

Bob: I know where this is going.

Cal: I hate to bring up Willie Horton,
the “star” of a Republican TV
during the 1988 presidential campaign.

Bob: I’m sure you do, Cal.

Cal: Well, you’ll recall Horton was serving a life
sentence without the possibility of parole. Horton took advantage of a weekend
furlough program under then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts — who was the
Democratic nominee for president. Horton failed to return and traveled to
Maryland, where he committed assault, armed robbery and rape. He then became the
poster boy for conservative criticism of liberals for being soft on crime.

Bob: Willie Horton is the exception, not the rule.
Most prisoners are not violent offenders like Horton. Most in California’s
prisons, for instance, are drug offenders.

Cal: There’s a biblical solution to non-violent
crime that might serve as a deterrent and bring justice to the victim. It’s
called restitution. Exodus 22:3 says a
“should make full restitution; if he has nothing, then he shall be
sold (into slavery) for his theft.” We don’t allow slavery today — thankfully —
but the part about restitution would work. If I steal and sell your TV, putting
me in jail doesn’t get your TV back.

Bob: What if the perpetrator is destitute?

Cal: Remember layaway plans, where a person could
put something in a store on hold and then slowly pay it off? Judges could have
restitution plans. The person has to pay X amount each month until a debt is
paid — even if they pay for their entire lives. I mean, students practically do
that now with student loans!

Bob: I like it. What about the conditions of
prisons? They’re deplorable. I’m not going to tell you that we should give
prisoners hotel suites, but I am saying that wretched living conditions will not
help with rehabilitation. Beyond that, more than half of prisoners have substance abuse problems, but only one in 10 receive
treatment. And we need better jobs training in prisons, too.

Cal: So put all drug users in rehab, on top of job
training? Talk about spending a mint.

Bob: It’s actually the opposite. According to the Research
Triangle Institute
, the savings for providing drug treatment programs instead of
incarceration over a six-year period would be $47,000 per inmate. And job
training will pay for itself. Would you rather have someone pay taxes or see
taxes go to house them forever?

Cal: I’d like to see some pilot programs and the
cost-benefit analyses before we dive headfirst into these, but you sound
reasonable enough.

Bob: You’re generous!

Cal: There’s another solution that should gain more
widespread acceptance. Charles Colson’s
Prison Fellowship
has had much experience turning criminals into law-abiding
and productive people.

Bob: How so?

Cal: The program focuses on transforming a person’s
life — going big, beyond just the criminal behavior. No one is forced into Bible
studies, but those who enroll in them are the polar opposite of the recidivism
rates mentioned above.

Bob: It’s a Christian-focused ministry. What about
folks without faith or of other religions?

Cal: I’m for what works, regardless of whether it’s
Buddha or baying at the moon. As long as it produces results that benefit the
country, why should anyone object to Jesus?

Bob: As long as it’s a person’s choice, I’m on
board. So we have found common ground on (1) eliminating mandatory sentences;
(2) removing some non-violent inmates from the prison population; (3) more drug
treatment; (4) enhanced job-training programs; and (5) where possible, following
the example of the Prison

Cal: I like it. Prison reform is one of the many
areas in which we all have the same goals, and with a little back-and-forth, we
really can change the system for the better. That, my friend, is the American

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