America, we have a problem. That problem is exemplified in a single phrase: “tough on crime.” This phrase has been used since the 1960s to justify draconian policies that are supposedly designed to make the public safer. In actuality, however, they are promoted by those who seek power (elected officials and bureaucrats), who play on the public’s fears, and even deploy such policies as “dog whistles,” to appeal to racist and vengeful undercurrents in our society.
The consequence, I believe, is not a safer public space, but a punitive scheme that overburdens the system of “justice,” breaks up families, robs hundreds of thousands of individuals of the opportunity to build marketable skills, and creates a deep antipathy for government and authority figures.
That’s why I call the term “tough on crime” Orwellian doublespeak. Below are some examples of real-world impact that those who spout such talk in this 2024 election cycle should be forced to confront:
A little background
The “tough on crime” ideology rose to popularity as part of a backlash against the rehabilitation model for criminal justice. Parole systems were abolished and mandatory minimums introduced. That’s also the time when post-release supervision became longer and stricter, along with collateral consequences such as voter disenfranchisement, ineligibility for public assistance (food stamps, public housing), and prohibition from certain professions requiring a license (like barbering!).
Consider three examples: Michael Calzadias, who received a 27-year sentence for his third (“three strikes”) conviction; Woodrow Brown, who completed his sentence, but due to multiple supervision violations, has been returned to prison to serve an additional five years; and myself. I’ve served more than 13 years on a 17.5-year sentence and completed a plethora of rehabilitative programs and certifications – including paralegal training from the Blackstone Institute and a corresponding advanced certification in criminal law.
Mike just started his incarceration. He’s 43 and was given a 27-year sentence. Without a miraculous change in law, he’ll be past retirement age when he is finally released.
Prior to this sentence, he did time for two prior convictions. But before this latest sentence, he had turned his life around and was the owner and manager of a successful contracting and remodeling business. He traveled the nation in the wake of natural disasters, helping residents rebuild. He hired down-on-their luck family members and friends to help them get back on their feet. And that is what the government used to hang him.
A couple of his employees engaged in a drug-and-money-laundering scheme cooked up by Mike’s two brothers, and the government targeted both siblings – including accusing Mike of being a leader. The guilty employees were pressured to testify against Mike, even though he wasn’t a party to his brother’s scheme, and he was forced into a plea deal. Although they later recanted their incriminating statements at Mike’s sentencing hearing, he got 27 years. Why? His two priors.
Meanwhile, his employees are out of work in a tough place to find employment.
I met Woodrow (Chip, as we call him) at my last federal prison, FCI Jesup (Georgia). The pandemic had just been declared and I was recovering from a hyperextended knee and on crutches (the only treatment I was given). That’s when I was told I had to move from the B4 housing unit to A1 because my counselor’s office was there.
Chip was one of my cellmates in a three-man cell that was just 59.5 square feet. He had previously served a sentence of eight years, then got out for 12 years with no issues. But he was on lifetime supervised release and was constantly harassed by his probation officer. One day, he relieved his stress by smoking a joint – an act now considered legal in much of the country. Most guys I know have been given 10+ chances to test clean before being hit with a violation. But not Chip. Chip was tested three times in just a couple of weeks, which isn’t enough time to clear THC out of your system. His P.O. clearly was looking to send him back to prison.
He did 14 months behind bars for that, but he finally got out. Only a year and a half later, I met him again, at my next prison, a low-security federal prison in Atlanta. He had been snared again—but this time for doing absolutely nothing. An unidentified person reported that he was illegally using social media platforms. The state police showed up at his house, confiscated his phone and examined it. They found no evidence he was doing anything illegal. But when he did the right thing and reported the incident to his P.O., he was immediately found “more likely than not” to have committed another crime while on supervision! He was returned to prison for two years.
Tough on CRIME? No, the system has been tough on Chip and everyone around him. Chip was uprooted from his job, his house (which was promptly burgled after his re-incarceration) and progress in the community. His girlfriend left him because she was tired of dealing with his P.O.
Me: Christopher Cobb
As I mentioned, I am serving a 17.5-year sentence. Like Chip, I have a life sentence, if you add in supervision after release. So, I am fully expecting to spend the rest of my life fighting for rights the founders of this country called “inalienable,” but have been stripped from me.
When I finally get out, I will have no place to live. I can’t live with my mother because her new boyfriend says “no.” As for my biological father, his first words to me the last time we saw each other (when I was 22) were “this is not the bank of Dave,” So, no to that option. My stepfather would take me in, but my stepbrother, a former felon, lives with him. So, my P.O. likely won’t approve that address. Accordingly, I’ll be homeless – all because the government won’t allow me to live with the one person who would welcome me.
As for employment, I was a chef prior to my lockup, but by the time 15 years come to an end, standing for 16 hours a day will be challenging physically. Although I have completed EPA courses (in HVAC, for example), certification requires hands-on experience I can’t get. And my terms of release won’t allow me to work as a paralegal. (Working as a paralegal requires access to protected information, but my P.O. will be allowed to search me, my workplace and any property without a warrant.) In other words, the government is actively blocking my successful return to society: I have no job waiting. All my friends from before prison no longer speak to me (out of sight out of mind), and my in-prison friends are all former felons; thus, association with them will be a violation of my release conditions. To be frank, this scares the ever-loving hell out of me. So, the only real option I have is to fight back. I will continue to file in the courts to win back my rights, and will continue to write essays and articles.
There is collateral damage both when a crime is committed and when someone is incarcerated. The potential damage done to everyone should we weighed when a sentence is set.
“Those who desire to shed light in the world must also first be prepared to burn.” – Viktor Frankl
“With every scar we have learned not to heal, but to hurt. We’ve become something else, even I cannot tell just why…” -Halestorm, Terrible Things