Lock ’em up America

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When I read that the state of Mississippi had kept Albert Woodfox locked up for 40 years in solitary confinement, I was reminded of the legendary criminologist, Marvin Wolfgang of the University of Pennsylvania.

Some years ago, when I was still writing editorials for The Journal Gazette, I attended a conference on crime and punishment at the university. It was my great honor to be seated next to Wolfgang at dinner one evening.

For years, experts regarded Marvin as the most influential criminologist in the English-speaking world. No wonder. He had written more than a score of much-praised books. At the time, the mid-1990s, I wasn’t aware of his reputation. I only knew he was a professor at the university.

Martin and I fell into a lively conversation about the state of incarceration in America. In a short while, I discovered that we shared a strong opinion.

“We lock up way too many offenders too long and too many for the wrong things,” Martin observed. I recall that he said this as if it were as obvious as the daily sunrise and sunset.

He didn’t object to locking up serious offenders. But it was those 20 and 30-year sentences that Marvin didn’t believe made any sense. Now, years after that conversation, a federal judge has ordered Mississippi to release Albert Woodfox.

No surprise, the state’s attorney general is appealing the order. I assume that once appeals are exhausted, the state will be forced to free this long-serving offender. It’s anybody’s guess how a man locked up in solitary for so many years will be able to cope with life outside his prison cell.

As I reflect on this one case, I’m reminded that America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. States in the South have the highest rates among the states. States in the East have the lowest rates. In the Midwest, we incarcerate several hundred citizens per 100,000 every year. Indiana is typical of the region, at 454 per 100,000. Such figures don’t tell the whole story.

In every state, we lock up kids whose offenses don’t even register as crimes if committed by an adult. So we incarcerate runaways, truants and kids some local official regards as incorrigible.

Long-time Huntington County judge Mark McIntosh, now deceased, told me that parents would often come before the court and beg him to put their child into a detention center.

You’d think a country that claims to be so religious would be more tolerant, less judgmental. Indeed, many jurisdictions have established drug courts and other programs that give small-time drug or traffic offenders a second chance.

Such are mere baby-steps toward a rational justice system.

Sadly, the reality is that politicians, judges and prosecutors who must run for election garner few votes for talking about rehabilitation, moderate sentences and second chances.

Judge McIntosh died just a few years ago. Professor Wolfgang died in 1998.

Some days I wish we still had people such as Professor Wolfgang in particular around.

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