Reforming the criminal justice system

America’s “get tough on crime” movement has created the world’s largest prison population, but is it working? “Tough on crime has been confused with tough on criminals,” says Ralph Spinelli, a 74-year-old Ph.D. student at the Goldman School of Public Policy and criminal justice reform activist. “ ‘Tough on crime’ requires us to develop programs that create jobs for people who are standing on the corner selling dope, robbing, or generally committing crime.”

Spinelli is also an ex-convict who served time in the prison system with the nation’s lowest rate of recidivism -- Oregon, and in a system with one of the highest, California. He details his experiences in a new book, “Prison as Punishment,” (

But educational opportunities are just one reason Oregon has a 22.8 percent recidivism rate compared to 43 percent for the nation as a whole and 57.8 percent for California – statistics from a Pew Center on the States study.

Spinelli, who works closely with the Oregon Department of Corrections, highlights other reasons for California’s poor record and Oregon’s comparative success.

•  In Oregon, prison is punishment; in California, prison is for punishment.

In Oregon, prisoners lose their freedoms and are subject to the strict rules governing prison life, but that is their punishment. Otherwise, they are treated with the general civility accorded other human beings – they’re not humiliated, abused, and treated as though they’re worthless, Spinelli says.

In California, the opposite is true. Spinelli describes his bus ride to San Quentin in California.

“There was a caged holding cell inside the bus where I sat handcuffed and shackled. There were no other prisoners on the bus, just three cops with 12-gauge shotguns and two correctional officers, including the driver,” he writes. “None of the cops spoke to me. When it came time to get off, I was ordered to exit the bus backwards, still handcuffed and shackled.”

And the ride to Oregon State Penitentiary:

“There were three of us convicts and none of us were handcuffed or shackle, seated in the back of a van. There was just one cop, the driver. He spoke with us, respectfully, without shouting orders. He even asked what our preference in music was, then tuned the radio to a station that played it. He treated us like people.”

•  California spends 90 percent of its prison budget on payroll.

In 2012, California spent $11.5 billion on corrections – a sum many observers  believe goes to coddled prisoners. Not true, Spinelli says.

“Ninety percent was payroll,” he says. “We’re not coddling the prisoners; we’re coddling the prison guards. In California, entry level pay for a correctional officer is $85,000. With guaranteed benefits, the pay can be as high as $115,000. Academic requirement for this position: GED.”

Oregon corrections officers start at just under $39,000 with the same minimum academic requirement. However, officers have an incentive to earn a bachelor’s degree, which helps qualify them to also work at Oregon’s federal facilities.



Published: Nov. 6, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 30