A Nation of Too Many Prisoners?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Presumed innocent, they shuffle into the sooty, granite fortress on Tulane Avenue every morning, ankles shackled, hands chained to their hips. Every evening, at least a dozen leave Orleans Parish Criminal District Court as felons, an exodus of the desperate, foolish, heartless and addicted.

In one courtroom, Donald Smith is slapped with a 30-month prison term after being caught stumbling in the shadow of the Superdome at 1 a.m. with a crack pipe in his pocket.

Down the hall, veteran New Orleans police Det. Norbert Zenon Jr. gets a seven-month sentence for fondling a woman while purporting to examine injuries she suffered at the hand of an abusive boyfriend.

Next door, prosecutors lay out their death penalty case against Blaise Fernandez, a former high school football star who will be convicted of murdering a security guard during the robbery of a Popeyes chicken stand.

Before the day is done, Renetta Wells is looking at a maximum of 15 years for attempted cocaine distribution; after being approached near the French Quarter by an undercover cop, she helped find a dealer who could sell him a $10 rock.

And on it goes, in the grimmest courthouse in the biggest city in the strictest state in the world's most incarcerated country, a nation that is now holding an estimated 2 million of its citizens behind bars. That statistical milestone--1.24 million men and women in state prisons, 623,000 in county jails, 140,000 in federal penitentiaries--is expected to be reached sometime today, according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute, a Washington think tank that supports alternatives to imprisonment.

Although calculating a single day for such an occasion is an imprecise science--and clearly done for political effect--nobody denies that the 2-million era is upon us or that the growth in incarceration over the last decade represents a social experiment unlike any this country has seen.

"This is the most punishing decade on record," said Vincent Schiraldi, the institute's director, noting that the nation's inmate population at the start of the 1990s was 1 million, an unprecedented number at the time. To double that--adding another million in just 10 years--is to equal the growth of the prison population during the previous 90.

In Louisiana, Rate Is Tops in Nation

Based on the U.S. Justice Department's most recent data, 461 of every 100,000 Americans are now serving a prison sentence of at least one year. California, though home to the largest total prison population, is about average per capita, with 483 inmates per 100,000 residents. In Louisiana, the rate is 736, tops in the nation--a symbol of resolve for some here, a badge of shame for others. "I think there's a lot of people who should be in the penitentiary and who don't always go," said Harry Connick Sr., the New Orleans district attorney. "But I also think there's some who do go who perhaps shouldn't be there."

Having reached such an extraordinary tally so fast, the United States appears deeply ambivalent about what it has sown. While a plummeting crime rate stands as vindication for many, a growing number of critics--not just liberals but also fiscal conservatives and anti-government independents--is beginning to question the costs, both economic and social, of keeping so many people locked up.

Drug offenders account for the greatest percentage of new inmates, yet hardly anyone believes the drug war is any closer to being won. Sentences everywhere have become longer and sterner, but each year 500,000 ex-convicts still return to society, often less equipped to function than before. Racial disparities are so extreme--blacks are nearly seven times more likely to be incarcerated than whites--that many African Americans consider the prison system nothing short of a modern-day slave plantation. As crime rates continue to drop, even a few law-and-order politicians have begun to wonder if the $40 billion that taxpayers pony up annually for incarceration could not be better spent.

"There are some who think we ought to keep everybody in jail and throw away the key--I know, because I was one of them," said John Hainkel, president of the Louisiana Senate.

But that was before the New Orleans Republican took over as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Now, four years later, he has come to the conclusion that the state's swelling correctional budget is undermining another of his priorities--improving Louisiana's dismal investment in public schools. "It's no great mystery," said Hainkel, a believer in education's crime-fighting virtues. "The state of Minnesota has the highest rate of college graduates and the lowest rate of individuals in prison."

Not wanting to appear "soft" on crime, politicians have spent decades preaching punishment over prevention. Some of the rhetoric has been opportunistic. But some also has been driven by a genuine sense of despair--that our culture grants too much discretion and demands too little accountability, that our judicial system has all but collapsed under the sheer volume and impossible complexity of contemporary societal ills.

In the name of justice, or vengeance, or perhaps mere expediency, the United States embarked on a bold new course, embracing swift and harsh punishment as the best defense against rising crime. Minimum sentences for most offenses became mandatory. Parole boards were stripped of their powers. Juveniles increasingly faced trial as adults. Repeat offenders were jacketed with lifetime labels--gang member, sexual predator, three-strike felon--eliminating the messy guesswork of judging their capacity to reform.

"Many of us want to believe in 'the better angels of our nature,' that even if people sin or do horrible things, that they can somehow be cured," said Leonard Steinhorn, an expert on race relations at American University's school of communications. "We want to forgive, but what often trumps everything is fear. We lurch toward conclusions, not always because they're the most rational ones, but because compared to other choices they seem to be the safest."

For those at the forefront of the victims' rights movement, self-preservation needs no apology. While a large chunk of the country has now experienced the inside of a prison cell, an even larger chunk has experienced the pain--emotional, physical, financial--inflicted by those who continue to victimize.

"It's not a perfect criminal justice system, but if you're going to make a mistake you must always make the mistake on the side of innocent life," said Dudley Sharp, a leader of Justice For All, a Texas-based advocacy group that views violent crime as an abuse of human rights.

For too long, he contends, the benefit of the doubt has gone to the offender, the suffering of victims not even recognized. As he sees it, the 2 million mark is the dawning of a new consciousness, one that is more punitive only if you happen to be a criminal; the rest of us, finally, are getting some protection. "When your community is in the middle of a flood, you first save as many people as you possibly can," Sharp said. "After you've saved them, then you can go to the Army Corps of Engineers and find out what happened to the dam."

The voices of clemency insist that they too favor severe punishment for severe crime. They worry, however, that America's lock-down is not motivated by fair retribution but moral righteousness--the desire to draw a line between "us," the law-abiding public, and "them," an irredeemable class.

"The whole thrust of everything now is to perceive and define people who offend society as being a breed apart from the rest of humanity," said Wilbert Rideau, a black man who was convicted of slashing the throat of a white woman during a Louisiana bank heist in 1961. Behind bars, he became an award-winning journalist, eventually earning the respect of his jailers and the faith of the state pardon board. But no governor has been willing to pay the political price of releasing such a celebrated killer, leaving him, at 58, one of the longest-serving inmates in Louisiana history.

"The thing is, people change," Rideau said. "They change with experience and they change with education. If you want a society that has no room for forgiveness, no room for compassion and no room for change, you're going to be living in a very dangerous place."

Race Is Often the Subtext

In his case, as in many others, race is often the subtext, an unspoken code that contributes to the perception of criminals as "The Other," a distinct and deviant caste. Although blacks make up about 13% of the U.S. population, they constitute 50% of the state and federal prison population. The odds that a black man will do time at some point in his life are 1 in 3; for whites, it is 1 in 25.

The disparity has only increased under the war on drugs, which has disproportionately targeted young black males. Most racial and ethnic groups consume drugs at roughly the same rates, meaning that whites account for about 75% of the nation's drug users. Blacks, however, account for about 75% of the nation's drug prisoners, a function largely of law enforcement priorities and a lack of resources for treatment.

"They should put up a statue here of a black kid on a street corner with a bag of dope in his hand," said Joseph Meyer Jr., a New Orleans public defender, as he walked the cavernous, marbled halls of Criminal District Court. "You get rid of those cases and you could get rid of half the judges in this building."

Many critics will be using the occasion of America's 2 millionth prisoner to take special aim at the drug war, condemning it as destructive and hypocritical, especially in a country that loses many more lives to alcohol and tobacco. In at least 30 rallies and vigils planned across the country today, groups like the November Coalition and Common Sense for Drug Policy will assail the "prison-industrial complex" for being as noxious as the ills it is supposed to solve.

Their assessment has been shared recently by some less likely figures, including a number of federal judges and academics, National Review Publisher William F. Buckley Jr., billionaire-philanthropist George Soros, conservative commentator Arianna Huffington and New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Republican who began calling for the legalization of drugs last summer.

Even the warden at the Louisiana Department of Corrections intake and classification center concedes that cost-effective alternatives, from electronic monitoring to diversion programs, could be used to shrink the state's incarceration rate--if the incarceration business did not have a financial interest in perpetuating itself.

"We've used prison beds to stimulate the economy," said C.M. "Marty" Lensing, who runs the Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in St. Gabriel, about 15 miles outside Baton Rouge. "In other words, it's an industry."

He says this on a Tuesday, the day that Louisiana's newest prisoners arrive for processing, a caravan of buses and vans and squad cars rolling in from the parish jails: St. Mary, St. Martin, Iberia, Caddo, Livingston, Plaquemines and, always, Orleans, responsible for about one-quarter of the state's felons.

By 8 a.m., Charles Smith has arrived, sentenced to three years for heroin possession. Next comes Menard Batiste, doing five for armed robbery. Kevin Collins, guilty of drug and manslaughter charges, is at the front end of a 10-year term. Troy Andrews, first-degree murderer, is here for 99.

Dozens more follow, some with teardrop tattoos and gold teeth, others with canes and wheelchairs, almost all struggling to make their way out of vehicle doors without tripping over chained feet. They shiver in the morning cold, gripping the plastic trash bags that hold their possessions.

"Get over by the fence, line up by twos, pair it up, c'mon guys, let's go," says Capt. Ann Malina, a supervisor at the Adult Reception and Diagnostic Center, puffing on a cigarette.

Inside a concrete holding cell, the men strip naked. They put on white jumpsuits, give blood and urine, remove earrings and necklaces and rings. A barber with an electric razor shaves off their facial hair, their ponytails, their braids. A photographer takes their mug shot. A psychologist asks them questions.

Another van pulls up, then another, 65 new prisoners today, 16,000 every year, 33,000 currently incarcerated, and more on the way.

"The faster we get this done," Capt. Malina barks, "the faster we get out of here."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Nation's Incarceration Rates

The number of prisoners serving at least a year, per 100,000 residents.

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Source: U.S. Department of Justice Note: 1998 figures

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