Pennsylvania’s incarceration rates are the highest of any northeastern state. Beginning in the 1980's with the advent of the “War on Drugs,” Pennsylvania American Civil Liberties Union director Reggie Shuford said the commonwealth has a history of mass jailing. He told Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer about an upcoming ACLU roundtable discussion at the August Wilson Center addressing the incarceration debate.
Shuford blames the high rates on politicians who in the 1980s, sought to improve their public image by taking a hard stance on drugs.
“There was a rise in the number of crimes, there was a rise in the severity of punishment for those crimes, and obviously in targeting crack in the US made it easy to target certain communities,” he said.
This “addiction to mass incarceration,” as Shuford termed it, led to a large number of people being jailed for non-violent crimes.
However, the issue goes beyond time spent in prison. Those who served jail time suffer from “civil death” as they found several of their rights and opportunities stripped away. These ex-inmates could no longer function as members of society in any significant capacity.
“I think we are spending limited resources devoted to locking people away without a lot of thought or care, perhaps, to the impact on their families, their communities and then our society at large,” Shuford said.
When asked about reforms, the director mentioned several, including the reclassifying of non-violent felonies to misdemeanors, expunging of records upon an inmates release and getting rid of mandatory minimums.
Until these actions are undertaken, Shuford believes, America will continue to hold the “dishonorable distinction” of having 25 percent of the world’s prison population.
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