Help Get Rid Of The 85%


Please take a moment to read this memo written in an attempt to shed light upon the minimum mandatory sentencing requirement implemented in the state of Missouri.  This mandates all offenders convicted of violent crimes; adolescent first-timer or season career criminal, serve at least eighty-five percent of their sentences before eligibility of parole or release is obtained.  Because of the vast increases of Missouri's prison population each year, and the overwhelming majority of prison populations nationwide are disproportionately composed of black males, we are soliciting the help of the public. It is imperative that the community is made aware of the extent to which the 85% mandate has failed in its alleged attempt to mitigate the commission of violent crimes.  We must begin taking the steps necessary to bring about its dismissal.

Although incarceration is among life's most debilitating tribulations, its affects are not restricted to the imprisoned.  Prison is a life altering experience that prisoners share with their families and friends alike. Attempts to improve quality of life made by prisoners returning to society after lengthy prison terms are often met with vehement resistance.  However, so often is the case that members of society are deceived into the belief that all is lost and nothing can be done once the gavel drops.  No wonder recidivism rates are so high.  Contrary to popular belief, prisons are not built to correct or rehabilitate the behaviors of criminals.  Prisons are more likely to succeed in dismantling family structures while inflicting prisoners with often irreparable psychological and physical illnesses.  The untold truth is that prisons are a multibillion dollar industry rendered even more profitable by legislative promotion like the 85% ordinance.

Perhaps the most relevant piece of information I would like to impart in this message is that in the past three years, proposed legislative bills to overturn the 85% law were presented, and each time the proposals came up short by fewer than five votes.  The majority of the public was unaware of the fact that they could vote.  Your votes and the support for your incarcerated family members by making calls, writing letters, and asking questions play a significant role in bringing about changes in state and federal legislations.

Nonetheless, it is my fervent hope that the aforementioned sentiments have been enough to raise the levels of awareness of a political issue critical to so many who are laboring in the efforts of rehabilitating themselves.  Support those who yearn to make amends for the wrong they have committed in society, a feat only possible if given the opportunity to make an exodus from prison and return to it sooner rather than later.  If for any reason we have fallen short of spurring you into action, let the historic election of Barack Obama, to the once presumed unattainable position of President, serve as a testament to the fact that a collective effort can bring about change, and that anything is possible.

Why You Should Help Get Rid Of The 85%

In my first attempt to rouse the public's awareness of the deleterious 85% law, I candidly expressed what I hoped would be a clarion call for help.  Since that time I have started a petition to buttress the %"Help Get Rid of the 85%"campaign, and begun circulating the memorandum as far and as wide as my limited resources have enabled me to.  And though there have been sparks generated in my Sisyphean pursuit to abdicate the 85% legislation, the accomplishment of such an initiative will require even brighter coruscations-ones I am seeking to ignite in this follow-up of why you should help.

Even as the state of the American economy has slumped into its worst recession since the Great Depression, an overwhelming percentage of the tax dollars you pay are siphoned into state and federal prisons.  Yet, the commission of crimes or the rate in which they are committed have not shown signs of diminishing.  Instead, the American penal system continues to expand as a result of procrustean mandatory minimums, and life or life without parole sentencing practices.  One of the primary reasons why the public's hard earned tax dollars have not seen an ebb in the revolving door that is the American penal system is because your tax dollars are incessantly misappropriated.

Rather than providing support to educational and trade programs within prisons-components that serve as proven factors in the effort of driving recidivism rates down-hundreds of millions of dollars have been doled out to build more prisons.  Consequently, the criminal justice system successfully warehouses in lieu of rehabilitates the men and women that occupy them.  Further, the eterna l churn of open-and-close accelerates when lawmakers only concede to enacting legislations that will affect non-violent offenders, the vast majority of which have not been sentenced to mandatory minimums.

Considering as much, one might begin to infer that America's robust prison population continues to wax without crime rates waning because lawmakers are more concerned with sustaining the billions of dollars that prisons accrue each year, than they are with maintaining safety in the communities that are often unconsciously funding them.  Perhaps such an assertion would be perceived as outlandish to some, but the numbers don't lie.

According to statistics posted on U.S. Senator James H. Webb's website (, although Americans account for a mere 5% of the world's population, it is home to 25% of the world's reported prisoners.  If such a glaring disparity does not belie the Constitution's declaration that all Americans "shall be granted life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,"   I'm not sure what does.  Senator Webb, a Virginia Democrat, has taken the initiative to enact, The National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009, which was introduced on March 26th and is geared toward "looking at every aspect of our criminal justice system with an eye toward reshaping the process from top to bottom."

He further asserts that, "America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace."  And that, "It's irregularities cut against the notion that we are a society founded on fundamental fairness.  Our failure to address this problem has caused the nations prisons to burst thei r seams with massive overcrowding, even as our neighborhoods have become more dangerous.  We are wasting billions of dollars and diminishing millions of lives."

Other mind-boggling statistics gathered from an article published in April of this year (2009) in the St. Louis Post Dispatch reveal that "even without taking into account the costs of police and courts, more than $60 billion a year in public funds are spent to support incarceration."  In Missouri alone, the current budget for its Department of Corrections is over $650 million a year.  The Show Me state is currently home to roughly 30,000 prisoners, an astonishing amount considering its native population of 5.5 million.  A hint at just how alarming the rate in which Missourians are being incarcerated is highlighted when juxtapositions are made between it's prison population and California's, the most populous state in the Continental U.S. with over 33 million people.

California's approximately 170,000 prisoners make it home to more convicted felons than anywhere else in the country.  Therefore, by comparison one could accurately extrapolate that if Missouri were the size of California; it would be home to more than 210,000 prisoners.  Fortunately, it is not because even its twenty-one prisons would be hard pressed to warehouse over 200,000 people.  It is even more fortunate that those of us laboring in the effort of criminal justice reform from within the razor-wire fences that encompass prisons have finally begun to garner the attention of our governing officials.

Attorney General Eric Holder presented a speech on July 9, 2009, at the Vera Institute of Justice during which he delineated how, as head of the Department of Justice, he would "move past politics and ideology in order to get smart on crime."  He went on to say that, "Getting smart on crime requires talking honestly about which policies have worked and which have not, without fear of being labeled as too hard or, more likely, as too soft on crime.  Getting smart on crime means moving beyond useless labels and instead embracing science and data, and relying on them to shape policy.  And it means thinking about crime in context-not just reacting to the criminal act, but developing the government's ability to enhance public safety before the crime is committed and after the former offender is returned to society."

Now that the talks of prison reform have begun circulating among key government officials, there is even more work to be done in ensuring that the walks toward seeing an overhaul into existence are accomplished.  Even before the ball of criminal justice reforms began to roll in the past few years, I had not completely bought into the general consensus held in prisons that the criminal justice system is an ad hoc enterprise designed to figuratively castrate black males. 

Although the plights of black men on American soil have been an on-going struggle since the Mayflower and her trio reached its shores nearly four centuries ago, we have realized Herculean social, economic, cultural, and yes, political achievements.  Moreover, we are fully aware of the fact that "there is no progress without struggle," and that the advancements we have made hitherto-including President Obama's historic ascension to the White House-are not grounds for contentment.  The fight for total liberation must go on!

In spite of the fact that black men represent a mere 6% of the U.S. population, we comprise a staggering 37% of the prison and jail populations, a gap so wide it suggests that we are perennial targets of profiling and a myriad of the race related injustices.  Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s encounter with them on his doorstep; and all of the media coverage that it has developed have brought the issue of racial profiling back to the forefront of the American conscience.  But t he hideous faces of discrimination and race related tableaus don't rear their ugly heads sporadically for most of us, as they have in Professor Gates' case.

Perhaps no where else in America are such iniquities more prevalent than in it's criminal justice system.  In a speech delivered in New York last month, at the NAACP's 100th convention, President Obama acknowledged the disproportions therein, saying that "black children are five times as likely to be jailed as whites."   He
encouraged black Americans to fight educational and economic inequality, deeming them "the new barriers of our time."  And though the sentiments may have come as a surprise to some, because his position forces him to calibrate his words carefully; it should not have come as a surprise to anyone that educational and economic iniquities are directly proportional to incarceration rates soaring.

I am much more likely to fail if I don't finish high school.  And I am much more likely to engage in criminal activities pursuing misguided endeavors to subsist in a country whose "American Dream" of power and wealth are heavily advertised if I am not equipped with the employability skills that an education provide. Of course, there are always exceptions to the paradigms outlined, for I am a living testament of the fact that aberrations do exist.  Nonetheless, the degenerative cycle that arises out of the amalgam of educational and economic disparities and leads to incarceration is inevitable more than half the time.

Why, then, did President Clinton pass legislation that, amid other things, resulted in prisoners becoming ineligible for Pell Grant disbursements in 1994?  Jon Marc Taylor, a Missouri inm ate who has earned three college degrees over the course of his incarceration, the highest being a Ph.D., offered his views on the issue in an article he submitted to "Straight Low Magazine" in 2008 entitled, "Pell Grants for Prisoners, Why Should We Care."

Dr. Taylor's article reveals that over 70% of the nation's prisoners have prior felony convictions, and that "Caverage recidivism rates have increased to nearly seven out of ten parolees since the reductions of all forms of education and therapy programs."  On the other hand, "Prisoners earning college degrees, however, have common recidivism rates of 20% or even down to single digits when earning baccalaureates."

And when providing an explanation as to why it should matter i f convicted felons don't have the opportunity to earn college degrees while serving their sentences, Dr. Taylor answers simply.  "The answer is because they get out. It is in society's best interest criminologically, economically, penologically, and socially to provide and even encourage prisoners to complete as much education as possible."  He also quotes a former director of the American Correctional Association, who said, "If you're sitting next to a convicted felon on the bus, would you rather he spent seven years in prison opening his mind and learning a skill, or staring at a crack in the wall?"

All Americans in their right mind should choose the former.  Additionally, President Obama's challenge to black America to fight the socio-economic injustices that persist even after he has taken the helm of The Oval Office, reaffirm my assertion that his success does not indicate a pending panacea for all of our grievances.  Even President Obama understands that "Presidents need to be pressured into action," in order for groundbreaking legislations to be passed.  More than four decades after Dr. M artin Luther King Jr. wrote a letter from his jail cell to the clergyman of Alabama - where he was arrested for spearheading an integral chapter of the storied Civil Rights Movement - his claim that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," still rings true today.

Please acknowledge the dire state of the American criminal justice system, and join forces with Attorney General Holder and Senator Webb in their valiant endeavors to provide solutions toward improving it.
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