Crime bill: A major disaster

June 20, 1994|By Carl Upchurch

The Omnibus Crime Bill -- which will soon reach President Clinton -- is one of the most disastrous pieces of legislation ever considered in this country. While the differences are to be worked out in conference committee, the House version would allocate $14 billion for incarceration. The Senate's $6 billion is more restrained, but still a chilling attempt at a "final solution" for this country's social ills. I know, because I managed to survive 10 years in a federal penitentiary.

My first contact with the criminal justice system came when I stole a bike. Nine years old, I was sentenced to two years detention at the Bureau for Colored Children. Eventually I graduated to bank robbery, and 10 years in prison. It was there, with federal Pell Grants paying tuition, that I earned a degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

Some people look at me and say, "Prison can't be that bad -- you made it!" But it is, and they miss the point. If a thousand people try to cross a minefield and only two stumble through alive, scarred and tattered, you don't look at those two and declare "the minefield can't be that bad -- you made it!" What about the other 998 who got blown apart? For young African-American males, this country is like a minefield -- and we're just buying more mines.

For openers, the new crime bill will deny prisoners the Pell Grants that gave me a college degree. Cutting these grants is politically easy because prisoners don't vote. Yet this response to criminal behavior is itself criminal. Even the Justice Department reports that these grants significantly help reduce recidivism.

We are failing to acknowledge that 94 percent of those currently incarcerated will eventually return to society. Pell Grants were one of the best ways for convicts to create their own way out of the vicious cycle of poverty-prison-parole. Now we are forcing prisoners to leave prison no more able to cope with life than when they entered.

The entire system of incarceration helps to manufacture a class of professional convicts. The pretend work has no application or value beyond prison walls. The animal environment encourages prisoners to prey on each other. In the best-case scenario, a prisoner atrophies psychologically and emotionally. In the worst-case, a prisoner is forced to develop bases instincts for survival.

We cannot continue to treat prison as a society apart from our own. In the past 10 years we have doubled the inmate population, surpassing even South Africa and the former Soviet Union in rates of incarceration. And yet, crime statistics show a 3 percent decrease over this same time. We are not fighting crime, but a fear of crime, and a fear of an entire class of Americans.

Four years ago African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and Asian Americans constituted 61 percent of those under supervision of the courts. As that number grows, we build more prisons. There is no way to incarcerate every person -- every young, minority male -- who scares us. But we're trying.

What is most disturbing is that this is happening under Bill Clinton. Not long ago Mr. Clinton was promising to chart a visionary course for a future. Now he has joined the cowardly chorus of "three-strikes-and-you're-out" as it mixes mortar for new prisons.

The decaying economic fiber of our cities is at the root of crime. But Congress will do nothing to improve conditions for the millions of people who languish in urban squalor. Without help, many of these people are destined for incarceration or a life of uncertainty and fear.

At a time when we need innovation, the crime bill shuns it. Alternatives like job training and placement, curfews, drug treatment, counseling, community service, intensive supervision, and home confinement are effective and less costly than incarceration, but the crime bill has downplayed them.

Indeed, the willingness of Congress to spend up to $28 billion on punishment when it wouldn't invest more than $5 billion in America's urban areas is a clear signal of messed-up priorities. This county is either unable or unwilling to provide employment for all who want it, and our "final solution" is to lock up the urban poor.

One thing I saw in prison was that brutality breeds brutality. If this crime bill becomes law, Americans will certainly learn this lesson in a hurry.

Carl Upchurch is president of the National Council for Urban Peace and Justice based in Pittsburgh.

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