Fmr. Missouri state Sen. Jeff Smith details need for prison reforms after year behind bars

09/30/2015 10:22 PM

Former Missouri state Sen. Jeff Smith found out first hand how easy it is to go from politician to prisoner, joining 1.62 million other Americans in the prison system at the time.

In 2009, Smith was serving in the Missouri General Assembly when a campaign violation from his 2005 run for Congress came to light.

During Smith’s run for the U.S. House of Representatives, his campaign illegally coordinated with an outside third-party group — a fact he lied about to federal investigators in a signed affidavit. Smith pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice for impeding an investigation his opponent in the race initiated.

“I knew what I was doing was fishy — I didn’t know the nuances of campaign finance law,” Smith said.

A judge sentenced Smith, the first-time non-violent offender, to a year and a day inside Kentucky’s Federal Correctional Institution in Manchester.

Smith is detailing his time in prison in his book Mr. Smith Goes to Prison: What My Year Behind Bars Taught Me About America’s Prison Crisis.

During his interview on Pure Politics, Smith detailed the “tremendous amount of untapped human potential in our federal prisons” and how the system is not serving inmates in a fashion to reduce relapses in future criminal behavior.

“In our country we are focused on the punishment aspect as opposed to the rehabilitative aspect,” Smith said. “Even though there are 2.2 million people in our prisons in this country — our jails and our prisons — and 625,000 of them will come back home every year, and we don’t think about what they will be like when they come home.

“If we thought more about the potential for recidivism then we would treat them better when they were locked up,” Smith continued.

Hear more from Smith’s experience in prison, his thoughts on expungement and why criminals are forced to be better at bending the rules to survive locked up.

Smith also detailed the cost he sees society paying for the rape culture behind bars.

Men raped inside prison face a “terrible and far-reaching effect,” Smith said once out of prison. Those same men who were raped often attempt to reclaim their manhood by committing acts of rape.

“By tolerating this sort of rape culture inside prison and by making a joke out of it within our popular culture what we basically do is we make life a lot less safe for men and women put in society because of the increased likelihood that ex-offenders who have been assaulted will rape when they come out,” he said.

Smith clarified that he is not seeking that all of the prisons be shut down, but he does see the need for “a broad rethink of how we sentence people.”

“I’m not arguing to be easy on crime,” Smith said. “I’m arguing we be smart on crime.”

Mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders, Smith said tops the list of reforms he sees necessary. In that vein, and the result of lengthening prison sentences, mandatory minimums and the elimination of parole has led to a boom in America’s elderly prison population.

“There’s no reason that a 60 year old who is a violent offender 35 years ago needs to continue to be locked up if he’s had his last 30 years of time in prison without any violent behavior,” he said.

“We’re continuing to lock people up far into their lives far longer than they need to be locked up and keeping them away from their family.”

Smith also shares his thoughts on why privatization of prisons offers a “perverse incentive” to lock up individuals.


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