Prison Reform (Part 3): An Opportunity to Pass Go-Prison Alternatives

Text by Kimberly Cecchini

A mother awaits her son’s transfer from county to state prison. Her son is considered a ‘wobbler’ for having accumulated a few charges due to his drug use. At this point, according to the state of California, the district attorney has the authority to classify the charges as felonies or misdemeanors.

A non-violent drug abuser, he was recently assigned a 32-month sentence for the probate violation of being caught with drugs.

Shockingly, a drug abuser was caught with drugs.

The judge should have just told him to go directly to jail; do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.

“Without treatment, what chance do these men and women have? They are merely warehoused-no treatment, no anything viable to help them change.” -Carol, Mother & Advocate

The young man’s mom and the Prison Reform Movement blog’s founder, Carol, questions the wisdom of using jail as a means for dealing with her son and other habitual drug users, “Without treatment, what chance do these men and women have? They are merely warehoused-no treatment, no anything viable to help them change. Most will be back inside within 3 years according to the statistics. What does this tell us? Most importantly, what message are we sending these people? That they are not worthy and are not deserving of a chance.”

Drug Courts

Carol proposes that drug courts instead of criminal courts would be a more effective route to address non-violent drug abusers. Although the research is still somewhat inconclusive and the successes of drug courts rely on a host of factors, the results are generally more positive. The National Institute of Justice researchers, in regard to a 10 year study of a drug court in Portland, Oregon, concluded, “…drug courts may lower recidivism rates (re-arrests) and significantly lower costs”. They found that recidivism was lower five years or more later for 6,500 drug court participants than for individuals with similar drug offenses in that county.

Other Alternatives-to-Incarceration

Although he would not argue that some period of incarceration was not appropriate for his own offense of armed robbery, Glenn E. Martin asserts that more significant punishments do not equate to increased public safety and decreasing recidivism and he speaks about alternative models for addressing crime.

In a Crain’s Chicago Business op-ed responding to a mandatory minimum proposal for gun crimes in The Windy City, Mr. Martin summarizes a Brennan Center for Justice study crediting New York State with “…massive and simultaneous reductions in crime and correction populations — including prison, parole and probation”. The success correlates with a mandate in the 1990’s that limited “…the state’s over-reliance on mass incarceration as a solution to crime”. Glenn specifically refers to New York City’s own successes as related to its “robust infrastructure of community-based prevention, intervention and alternatives-to-incarceration programs” and says that the recent elimination of most mandatory minimums for drug offenses should also boost the city’s success.

Mr. Martin is a proponent of alternatives-to-incarceration programs because he has seen them work.  As the former Vice President of Development and Public Affairs of the Fortune Society, Glenn spoke particularly about the Fortune Society’s programs which are tailored to focus on individual needs in areas that range from substance abuse, mental health, education, employment and family.

“They say things like, ‘when I came to Fortune, I met ‘Vilma’ and I remember her saying ‘Welcome home’, and nobody had ever said welcome home to me before’.” -Glenn E. Martin, Advocate & Former Prisoner

Intensive programs, such as at those at Fortune, can truly be transformative for its clients and Glenn says you can often see a complete about-face in the lives of Fortune graduates. The most effective impetus for change can seem subtle and may  reflect aspects of their earlier lives that may have impacted their choices.  When successful clients are asked what led to them to create lasting change in their lives, “They don’t say it was the urine test that used you used to do back then. They say things like, ‘when I came to Fortune, I met ‘Vilma’ and I remember her saying ‘Welcome home’, and nobody had ever said welcome home to me before ‘.” Much of the Fortune staff can genuinely empathize with the clients’ journey within the justice system, and sometimes it can simply be the human touch that makes the difference.

We are Redeemable 

“We tend to be a disposable society.”

-Carol, Mother & Advocate

“We tend to be a disposable society,” Carol laments our tendency to toss things to the side because we can always replace them. “We have to stop thinking that way with humans as most of us are fixable and redeemable.” I know she wishes the state of California would have given her son an opportunity for treatment rather than drawing a ‘Go Directly to Jail’ card for him.


Glenn E. Martin, Founder of JustLeadershipUSA. Personal interview. 26 June 2014.

Carol L., Blog founder (Prison Reform Movement). Email interview. May 2014.

Martin, Glenn E. “Mandatory Minimums for Gun Crimes: A Band-Aid Solution.” Crain’s Chicago Business. N.p., 20 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 July 2014.

Naidoo, Theshia. “Downside of Drug Courts.” The New York Times. N.p., 10 Mar. 2013. Web. 22 July 2014.

“Do Drug Courts Work? Findings From Drug Court Research.” National Institute of Justice. N.p., 12 May 2008. Web. 22 July 2014.

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