THE BLOG
03/05/2013 11:03 am ET | Updated May 05, 2013

Mass Incarceration: A Great Social Injustice

Our nation has a history of making absurd laws that contrast with American values. I remember reading about the Alien and Sedition Act in David McCullough's excellent biography of John Adams. That legislation made it a crime for people to speak openly against government policies. Today the law sounds stupid, but at the time, many Americans accepted it as being just. Legislators once passed laws that criminalized drinking or selling alcoholic beverages. Again, such laws don't make sense today. Laws once prohibited people from marrying those of different races, and some laws still prohibit people of the same gender from marrying.

Laws only change when citizens become convinced that laws do not serve the interest of our enlightened society. But if citizens don't know why the laws are incongruous with justice or common sense, they never take action, or unite against them. In some cases, citizens become comfortably numb to bad legislation, not understanding how stupid laws can lead to gross injustices, wasting taxpayer resources and destroying the fabric of society.

Our nation's commitment to mass incarceration is an example. We incarcerate 2.3 million people in our country. Supreme Court Justices like Anthony Kennedy recognize this commitment to mass incarceration as being bad public policy, even though the Constitution does not prohibit it. Stanford Law School Professor Joan Petersilia's research reveals that our nation's jails and prisons release 750,000 people each year. Yet when they return to society, people who've been released from prison remain stuck in the web of the criminal justice system, sucking resources that could be deployed more effectively elsewhere.

I am one of those people who've been released from prison, but I'm still stuck in the criminal justice system. I began serving a prison sentence on August 11, 1987 because of some bad decisions I made during my early 20s. I sold cocaine. Despite my not having a history of violence or weapons, my judge sentenced me to a lengthy term. I served more than 25 years in various federal prisons. During that quarter century, I built an extensive record to show my commitment to preparing for a law-abiding, contributing life. I wrote about my journey in numerous books, including Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term, and I recently spoke at UC Berkeley on the need for reforms to our nation's criminal justice system.

I walked out of federal prison on August 13, 2012. Despite the lengthy, well-documented efforts I made to reconcile with society for the bad decisions of my youth, like all federal prisoners, I found that our system of justice was programmed to receive. During the 9,135 days that I served, I earned an undergraduate degree from Mercer University and a graduate degree from Hofstra University. I published numerous books that university professors from across the nation relied upon to educate students. I married the love of my life. My published writings generated revenues that resulted in my paying taxes and my emerging with a savings account that would sustain me through my first year of liberty. I had a job awaiting me with a reputable employer, and soon after my release I received an offer to teach at San Francisco State University. I did not need assistance or further supervision from the criminal justice system.

Despite the stability that I worked so hard to create during my quarter century in prison, laws would not allow me to begin living without governmental supervision. I emerged from prison to serve six months in a San Francisco Halfway House. Now I'm serving six months on conditions known as home confinement. When I conclude the term of home confinement, I will commence a term of supervised release that is scheduled to last for several years.

This endless supervision is a colossal waste of taxpayer resources. For longer than 25 years, the government has observed me closely while I lived in custody. Since my release from prison six months ago, authorities in the halfway house have collected information from my employer that shows my ability to function in society as a law-abiding, contributing citizen. That documentation will not be enough. Government bureaucrats will continue wasting resources, requiring me to take time away from my employment so that I can meet with them to answer ridiculous questions about how I feel. They compile my responses into forms that no one reads and that do not serve any purpose but to keep the bloated bureaucracy going.

We have too much waste in our criminal justice system. That waste misuses taxpayer resources, both human and financial. Policies should require staff members in the criminal justice system to focus attention on predatory offenders who truly threaten society, but bad systems divert the attention of authorities so that they can watch people like me. This system traps too many people for sentences that are far too long. The costs associated with these bad public policies result in fewer resources being available for education, for health care, and for other social services. Besides those financial costs, they obstruct individuals from being able to move on with their lives, contributing to mass incarceration, one of the great social injustices of our time.