How One State Could Break the Cycle of Incarceration

In the second part of its trenchant documentary on prisons in America, Frontline shows us a side of Louisville you won't see on Kentucky Derby Day.

It is Kentucky Derby week—the 140th Run for the Roses takes place this Saturday—and that means we'll all soon be seeing an endless parade of images showing the beauty and the splendor of the bluegrass. We'll all soon be awash in reports about happy people in fancy hats converging on Louisville to watch fast horses and drink watered-down bourbon in frosty glasses.

But the real story in Kentucky, and in Louisville, will be shared with the nation earlier in the week, on Tuesday, when PBS and Frontline present Prison State, the second installment in a two-part documentary about crime and punishment titled Locked Up In America. That story—about a state's earnest effort to break the cycle of incarceration that has destroyed the lives of generations of Kentuckians—is far more interesting and important than the one we'll all watch on Saturday.

It is just four miles from Churchill Downs, where the fast horses run, to Beecher Terrace, a notorious public housing project in the city's west end that is "home" to the four central characters in the documentary. And in that short distance alone, about four trips around the fabled track you could say, all the promise and hope of America dissolves into a self-defeating cycle of crime and despair.

* * *

All of the four main subjects in the film are black. Two are older men—one a Vietnam War veteran—who have been incarcerated much of their lives on drug offenses. Two are young women, teenagers, whose short lives already have been marked by tragedy and who are struggling (and mostly failing) to adapt. They are sent to juvenile jail for skipping school and for other non-violent offenses.

These are not remotely the worst of the worst in the system. They know it. And the men and women who incarcerate them know it. And we as viewers have come to know it, too.

You cannot watch this powerful film without being confronted with the futility of a system that keeps men and women in an endless cycle of incarceration. And while it is easy to blame the individuals chronicled here—Want to stay out of prison? Stay out of trouble!—it's much harder in practice, sometimes impossible in practice, to overcome the circumstances that have put them there.

A teenager's mother is shot to death—and she descends into anger and madness. This person needs treatment, not jail. A war veteran became dependent upon drugs decades ago. He needs treatment, not jail. A bright young woman with a future is being sucked into the grim patterns and practices of her surroundings. She needs support, not a lesson in how to be an inmate.

These people needed to be treated differently, not just because it is the right and the ethical thing to do, but because it also is the practical thing to do. As Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department's Inspector General, said last December, we simply cannot afford to incarcerate so many people in America.

The moral here is that we all end up paying, one way or another, and that it makes far more sense to pay to keep people out of prison than it does to ensure that they stay there. Three quarters of the residents of Beecher Terrace have been to prison, the narrator tells us, and the state spends $30 million a year locking up the residents within this single zip code. This is both irrational and tragic.

* * *

In the first decade of the 21st century, a Pew Study revealed, Kentucky's incarceration rate soared by 45 percent. Not only were taxpayers saddled with the enormous expense, but policy makers eventually realized that recidivism rates were still above the levels of the 1990s. What the state was doing, at great cost, simply wasn't working. A bad problem was getting worse.

So in 2011, state lawmakers tried something new. They passed the "Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act," which was designed to free up prison beds and promote post-incarceration programs to reduce recidivism. It's not that this law was bold—the solutions it offered are not novel. What was bold was the bipartisan political acknowledgment of the costs of continuing to do nothing.

Kentucky made a choice, in other words, that it would try to break the cycle that has ruined the lives of thousands of its residents and costs the rest of its citizens hundreds of millions of dollars that could not be spent on roads or schools or health care. It is a choice that other states now have made, or at least are contemplating, and this film surely will encourage such worthy reforms.

As a result of the new law, more inmates there are getting drug treatment before they are sent back to prison or getting more treatment while they are in prison to increase the chances they won't return. And more young people are being given a chance to avoid juvenile jail, which takes troubled kids and turns them in hardened criminals. It will take decades to reverse cycles of poverty that go back centuries, but one has to start somewhere. And Kentucky now has started.

Prison State begins (and ends) as this new law is getting unfurled, and we see some of the progress (and turmoil) that it has generated. It's far too early to declare victory but at least we see earnest prison officials and judges trying to keep non-violent offenders away from jail. We see lawmakers justifying their new approach. We see troubled people trying to do better. We see nuance and ambiguity, not the starkness of right and wrong.

What you also notice about the film as it wends its way through the desperate lives of these people is that a justice system can be just on an individual level but still generate unjust results on the societal level. No one could say that the four subjects of the film are treated poorly. And yet no one ought to be satisfied by the results of their trials and tribulations. Surely we all can do better than this.

Every person who watches this film will see in it proof of their own preconceived notions about race and justice in this country. And they will assign blame in the direction that best fits with these notions. White America, I suspect, will react quite differently to these stories than Black America. And it's a shame Frontline didn't supplement the film with a focus group highlighting that racial divide.

Some people will look at the characters in this story and simply blame them for their own predicament. Some will look at the predicaments highlighted in the film and blame the policy makers who have created and nurtured our shameful schools-to-prison pipeline.

But my point, and the point of the new Kentucky legislation, and the point of the film, and the point of the sentencing reform now sweeping the country, is that the time for blame is over when it comes to petty offenders like these. That blame has gotten us nowhere—worse, it's gotten us to a place where we spend billions to incarcerate millions who pose no threat to us.