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OPINION: Stop wasting money on mass incarceration

By Jim Petersen

President of the South Dakota Peace and Justice Center

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact in our country.

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The United States holds 25 percent of the world’s prison population, but has only 5 percent of the world’s people. The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is as startling as the number jailed.

Since 1980, the number of people incarcerated in America has quadrupled from less than 500,000 to 2.4 million today, and this number is static: it does not capture the churn of people in and out of incarceration. Local jails alone admitted 11.6 million people between July 2011 and July 2012.

In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education, fueled largely by a “prison-industrial complex” network of actors who are motivated only by profit, and by politicians who play on people’s fear to gain political advantage, rather than to protect the public or reduce crime rates.

Thinking that this problem of mass incarceration is too daunting to address prevents us from diverting these counter-productive, wasted tax dollars to education, infrastructure and health care as well as from embracing an ethic of genuine caring, concern and compassion for every human being.

We must aggressively support any positive action to turn this abhorrent situation around, and this often needs to be done one case at a time, which brings us to the upcoming probation hearing for Joaquin Ramos.

Twenty years ago, Ramos was convicted of first degree manslaughter following what the deputy state’s attorney prosecuting the case called the accidental shooting of his fiancée, during an altercation between Ramos and another man in his home. He was sentenced to life without parole under the draconian South Dakota statute, a law which is unprecedented in severity when compared to any other state or Westernized country. Before leaving office, and after carefully considering the records of the case for two years, including prison psychological evaluations and Ramos’s prison history, Gov. Mike Rounds commuted that sentence to one that allowed for parole at 20 years.

This was the right thing to do. Two decades ago, Ramos was a mean-spirited, aggressive, immature, alcoholic, 25-year-old.

Today, after spending two-thirds of his adult life in prison, he is a calm, thoughtful, deeply religious and contrite middle-aged man. His impeccable prison record and work lecturing at-risk kids encouraged the Board of Pardons and Parole to recommend the commutation to Rounds.

Ramos lost 20 years of his life for his egregious behavior; justice has been served. He has taken complete responsibility for his past actions and the pain he has caused everyone involved. After an exhaustive analysis, the parole board determined that Ramos is not a threat to society, and in fact he could become a productive citizen with the support of his loving family who will assist him. Unfortunately, Rounds, who was grooming his campaign for U.S. Senate, ran into some ”soft on crime” political pressure and reversed his position, saying he did so based on a short meeting with members of the victim’s family where they could have said any vengeful thing, true or not.

Let’s not waste another dollar on Joaquin Ramos, but instead use those resources to help divert some other troubled young man from Joaquin’s path.