01/27/2011 06:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Justice: In Need of Overdraft Protection

Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday comes at a particularly interesting time this year, as recent events bring the administration of justice into sharp focus. Dr. King, in his legendary I Have A Dream Speech, stated that the nation's failure to provide civil rights to its Black citizens was a moral breach of contract. That breach established a promissory note for justice that needed to be tendered. In his brilliant use of words and metaphors, Dr. King said at the time that he refused to believe that the "bank of justice" was "bankrupt."

Dr. King's assessment made eminent sense four decades ago. However, during the later part of the turbulent sixties, the country was also willing to pay whatever price its citizens were told was necessary for "law and order." And pay we did. Between 1971 and 1990, the expenditures for incarceration increased a whopping 313%. Decade after decade, powerful interests chose to spend more and more on the justice system and its related cottage industries.

It is not surprising that the corrections hammer has fallen hardest on those Dr. King sought to protect. In the years since his speech, we have instituted a War on Drugs (brilliantly detailed in Michelle Alexander's book, The New Jim Crow), waged a similar war on children by criminalizing normal adolescent behavior, and become the world's largest jailer. All of these factors are the result of almost a half-century of "tough on crime" political slogans that touched emotions, but ultimately were not well informed. Ignorance in this case comes with a huge price tag.

In these times of fiscal austerity, we need to reexamine correction's "blank check" and what it means to us as a society. My voice and many others have been urging this point repeatedly: Justice as currently administered is unsustainable. Now it seems our unheard voices are being joined by some larger megaphones. We can only hope decision-makers listen.

Some powerful voices recently joined our call. Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, and former Republican Leader of the California State Assembly and participant in the Prison Fellowship, Pat Nolan, recently stated in a Washington Post editorial that states can save "costs without compromising public safety by intelligently reducing their prison populations." Gingrich and Nolan go on to say that spending $68 billion dollars on corrections "should trouble every American."

Amen. However, we need to be more than troubled; we need to be active and affirmative. Enough is enough. We must expose - and refuse to be swayed - by the "tough on crime" snake-oil that is peddled every legislative session. We must demand a new way of thinking about the administration of justice.

In the wake of the tragic events in Tucson, AZ, there has been much discussion about the nexus of mental health and criminal justice. Sober analysis is often in short supply after such tragedies. But it's important to note that while legislative and budget priorities have lavished ridiculous amounts of money on prisons, mental health services and facilities have been gutted.

These facts were made clear in a recently released report by the National Sheriffs' Association and the Treatment Advocacy Center, which documented that there are more three times more mentally ill people in jails and prisons than in hospitals. Likewise, the San Diego Chief of Police in Calif., William Lansdowne, has noted that cuts in community and preventive mental health services have resulted in "mental illness being one of the city's most growing public safety concerns." In short, we have opted for an expensive pound of illusory cure rather than the more intelligent ounce of prevention.

If our nation continues this ill-advised spending spree, the bank of justice will indeed be bankrupt. Two recently elected governors in California and New York have shown they understand their justice systems are getting close to needing overdraft protection. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in remarking on the expense and lack of positive outcomes in the state's youth justice system, said the average yearly cost of $350,000 annually per child with recidivism rates hovering around 80% is unsustainable. Indeed - who but an incarceration addict would want to spend untold millions of dollars for a paltry 20% success rate?

Similarly, California Gov. Jerry Brown delivered anxiety to the beneficiaries of the existing youth justice system by submitting a budget that defunds the youth prison system. His plan would altogether eliminate the state's juvenile prison system, send offenders to their home counties and reduce costs that are more than $200,000 annually per youth inmate. His budget outlines plans for shifting youth offenders and parolees to county systems "where they are known to local law enforcement and where community support systems exist." While practitioners have legitimate gripes about doing this responsibly, there is no doubt it will be hard to put the traditional corrections genie back in the bottle.

Issues pertaining to the administration of justice are rarely determined by rational uses of best practices. However, there is a growing body of evidence that is getting harder to ignore. We can no longer afford the luxury of a justice system that cannot deliver on its societal promissory note. Scholars, policy advocates, foundations, professional associations and practitioners are seeing the coffers quickly emptying. As Dr. King also stated in his famous address - Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

The cupboard is almost bare. It is time to be smart, efficient and effective. Now is the time for us to implement legislative and funding priorities that are restorative and maximize public safety. We can do better, and now we must.