Prison Policy

Michael Albert


25 years ago I was at a dinner party with a bunch of leftist economics faculty

and grad students, and I posed a hypothetical question to engender some dinner

debate. If you had only two choices, I asked, would you open all prison doors

and let everyone out, or would you keep everyone right where they are?


my surprise there wasn’t any debate. Only I was willing to entertain what

everyone else saw as the utterly insane, ultra-leftist notion that opening the

doors might be better than keeping everyone incarcerated with no changes. I then

added the option of giving everyone let out a job and ample training, but still

there were no takers.


later, would the result of such a query to leftists be the same? As context, our

little experiment might best be undertaken in light of the oft-quoted notion

that it is better to let ten criminals go free than to jail one innocent person.

Of course that may be just a rhetorical put-on for gullible law students, but it

is supposed to communicate that there is something utterly unthinkable about

innocent folks festering in prison. Okay, this implies some calculations. For

example, what is innocence and what is guilt, and how about letting one innocent

person fester in order to jail twenty, or fifty, or a hundred, or a thousand

malevolent psychopaths who would otherwise run amuck hurting and even killing

way more innocent folks? On the other hand, what if the calculus is the

opposite? What if the real question is should we keep one criminal in jail along

with five or ten innocent folks, or let them all go free?


crime rate in the U.S. is approximately the same as in comparably industrialized

and citified Western Europe. The number of inmates per hundred thousand citizens

in the U.S., however, is as much as fifteen times greater than in Europe, again

depending on which country we choose for our comparison. Stereotypes aside, the

rate of incarceration in Spain is a bit more than England is a bit more than

France is a bit more than Germany is a bit more than Turkey…and Norway and

Iceland are relatively crime free by comparison. The U.S. rate of incarceration

is about fifteen times Iceland’s, twelve times Norway’s, a bit over eight times

the Turkish rate, and a little over six times Spain’s.


high U.S. rates began spiraling dramatically upward about

thirty years ago in tune with politician and media exploitation of a largely

manufactured public fear of crime. Political candidates–Reagan being the game’s

most effective but far from its sole star–would drum up fear and then meet it

with programs for warring on drugs, expanding the number of prisons, extending

minimum mandatory sentencing, and imposing three strikes you’re out innovations.

When everyone from the cop on the beat, to the police chief, to the crime beat

reporter, to the DA, to the judge hears nothing but an endless litany of lock ‘em

up and let ‘em rot rhetoric, they all become predictably aggressive. Thus,

between 1972 and 1998 the number of folks in prison rose by over five times to

1.8 million.


of the increase, unsurprisingly, has been due to jailing folks for nonviolent

crimes such as possessing drugs, whereas in Europe such "crimes"

rarely lead to prison. So in the U.S. we jail five, six, seven, or even eleven

or fourteen folks who would be seen as innocent enough to stay out in society in

Europe, for every one person we jail who the Europeans would also incarcerate.

In other words, if we opened the doors right now, a horrendous proposal in most

people’s eyes, for every person the Europeans would have us jail, five to ten

who they would deem innocent would be set free. This is rather sobering. If we

would rhetorically let out ten guilty inmates to free one innocent one, surely

we ought to happily let out one guilty inmate to free five to ten innocent

ones–no? And then we ought to refigure our approach to laws, trials, and

especially punishment and rehabilitation as well–no?


data and most of the ideas above, by the way, did not come to me by way of a

dinner party with radical leftists. Instead, I borrowed this material from an

article in Scientific American, August 1999. The author, Roger Doyle, was

examining some facts to see their numeric implications. Being honest of course

means looking at facts and reporting them truthfully. Being left means looking a

little deeper to find institutional causes, and then extrapolating from the

conditions and causes one finds to proposals that further egalitarian and

humanist values one holds dear. Doyle went on in his Scientific American

essay to point out that (a) a key difference between young whites and

(disproportionately jailed) young blacks was that the whites are more likely in

our current economy to get jobs enabling them to avoid the need to steal or

deal, (b) income differentials are vastly greater in the U.S. than in Europe

and, (c) reading only a little into his words, that incarceration may be seen as

a tool of control against the poor so that "high U.S. incarceration rates

are unlikely to decline until there is greater equality of income."


for Scientific American’s honesty and even radicalism, but what about our

hypothetical leftist dinner party? If the difference between the U.S. and Europe

isn’t that Americans have more genes causing them to be anti-social but, rather,

that Americans and particularly black Americans are put into circumstances by

our economy which virtually require them to seek means of sustenance outside the

law, and if, to be very conservative, half the inmates in the U.S. are arrested

for victimless "crime" that would not even be prosecuted in Europe,

doesn’t it make sense to ask whether this entire U.S. prosecutorial and punitive

legal apparatus is, in fact, utterly counter productive in its current



this doesn’t even broach another radical question. Why are some leftists sitting

around a table, whether twenty five years ago or today, or why is anyone at all,

anytime, for that matter, more worried about the occasional fearsome anti-social

or even pathological thug/rapist/murderer who is caught and incarcerated going

free, than they are by (1) the violent and willful incarceration of so many

innocent souls who have worthy and humane lives to live if only enabled to do

so; or (2) the gray flannel businessmen walking freely up and down Wall Street

who preside over the misery of so many for their own private gain, each

businessman a perfect biological incarnation of willful, self-delusional, and

largely incorrigible anti-social behavior that operates at a scale of violence

which the worst incarcerated thugs can never dream to approach, or (3) the

government, which, on behalf of those gray flannel businessmen wrecks massive

mutilation and devastation on whole countries, then calling it humanitarian

intervention so that they can avoid the fatal injection death penalty our

society prescribes for murder, much less for murder most massive such as they



jails are ten to fifty times more crowded than the number of people a humane

legal system would have to incarcerate and/or rehabilitate because ways to

diminish that gap would entail reducing income differentials and improving the

lot of society’s worst off. Businessmen won’t tolerate that, not without a

fight, anyway.

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