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Ending Mass Incarceration in the United States
By John D. Rees, Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Corrections (Retired)
Published: 05/28/2018

Inmates a Can we end mass incarceration in the United States without being smart on crime and interject some good old common sense? I don’t think so.

Many states are trying to reduce the number of people in prison some are having success. Surprisingly, it is one area that has bipartisan support including the United States Congress. Other jurisdictions are not having the success; or not obtaining the benefits of what they thought was the right approach. All of this in the face of a huge and deadly drug addiction epidemic. As one who has spent fifty years working in the field of corrections, I have seen many changes in crime and punishment some for the better some for the worse. What probably was the worst being the politicization of crime and punishment. Whether it was Nixon’s War on Drugs 1971, Mothers against Drunk Drivers 1980, or Clinton’s Violent Crime bill in 1994; all ideas that had good intentions when they started and contributed to a heightened level rhetoric about crime and safety. Elected leaders responded with longer sentences, mandatory minimums, abolished parole and the list goes on. The result unprecedented growth in prison populations. The growth is not just the result of the burgeoning drug crisis it is the result of mandatory sentences that are a death sentence for many offenders. The number of offender’s male and female over 55 is growing resulting in a situation where not only is the state department of corrections is the largest mental health provider in a jurisdiction but also a major Nursing home provider; neither of which they are prepared to accomplish in a cost effective and humane manner.

Recently, I noticed two articles in the Lexington Herald Leader. The first was a story about a young high school student 18, who had been described by his teachers as a good student and considered the class clown. He had just been convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for saying “he was going to shoot up the school”. The prosecutor’s response was in this environment that we are in he had to send a message to deter future school shootings. The second article was about an Amish man in his forties who had been convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for not putting the correct wording on the labels of his natural skin lotion. The six-circuit court of appeals denied his appeal.

Really, an 18-year-old immature class clown and a forty-year old member of a religious sect taking up expensive prison cells that should be for people we are afraid of, not angry with. Yes, what the young man did was wrong and dangerous, no doubt about that. It required action by the police and possibly the prosecutor; but surely, we as society can use our collective common sense to take a deep breathe and come up with another sanction that would send a message that this type of behavior would not be tolerated without ruining a young man’s future.

Yes, we need the FDA and as an agency it protects our society by having regulations that require various wording on product labels. But lacking the required verbiage on a label for a natural salve simply doesn’t equate with six years in federal, prison; sorry it just doesn’t.

If we are going to address mass incarceration, and I strongly believe we must; then we must let our legislators, criminal justice professionals know that we want our criminal justice system and future legislative changes accomplished in a bipartisan manner with a great deal of common sense and compassion. We need to help those that need help and lock up those who pose a threat to all of us.

John D. Rees, Commissioner, Kentucky Department of Corrections (Retired)


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