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Sentencing Guidelines Should be Part of Budget Negotiations

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A top White House political and economic adviser says President Obama will lay out new plans this week to reduce the federal deficit. When it comes to cutting costs, KUNC commentator Pius Kamau thinks something has been missing from the discussions.

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For years I’ve watched the construction of prisons all across America with dismay. Between 1980 and 1990 the prison population doubled. And in 2010 we had almost 2.3 million Americans in our jails, at a cost of roughly $50,000 an inmate a year.

For decades prison construction and incarceration have become a growth industry. The term, "prison industrial complex," describes the profit motive behind the privatization of our jails.  Once profit was introduced into this equation, the interest to increase the numbers of inmates for each facility became a constant quest.

And communities where these prisons were built have done very well financially. But in our difficult economic times, several prisons - both nationally and in Colorado – have been targeted for closure. As much as I sympathize with the families whose financial existence is derived from working at local jails, I find myself cheering because this may reopen a dialogue on crime and punishment in America.

One of the reasons America incarcerates so many is that we erroneously believe imprisoning people is the antidote to high levels of crime. We know this is a fallacy. So as we debate whether to close jails to balance budgets, we also need to look at changing the laws that landed many there.

The disparity between how we judge possession of crack as opposed to powdered cocaine is an excellent example of the absurdity of our justice system. Because of this one drug law we have decimated whole minority populations and destroyed several generations of black men.  I have often wondered: if only we had spent the money to school them, how many Einstein’s and Isaac Newton’s we would have produced? It has been one of America's greatest losses.

We use our jails as an expensive way of solving problems of poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. We have flushed America's wealth down the toilet imprisoning the mentally ill who would have been best managed in mental institutions. As a nation, we are experts at postponing until tomorrow what should be solved today.

Unfortunately, this shift in attitude towards closing jails has had to wait until America was seized in an economic vice and doesn't seem to arise from a genuine belief that incarcerating large numbers of our citizens is inherently unjust or basically unhealthy to the national psyche. Even though justice maybe our plea, we must pray for mercy in the cause of justice. We need to look deeper at the anger we harbor in our hearts for those we don't like but are not necessarily guilty of any crime.

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