avatar
What Should Be Done With Prisons


The United States is a global leader in putting people in cages (#1 in prisoners, second in prisoners per capita to the Seychelles, where the United Nations locks up “pirates,” and whose whole population is a fraction of the U.S. prison population). The U.S. is also in the top 10 for state executions.

How’s this method of crime prevention working for us?

Well, the United States is #11 in gun deaths, behind 9 nations to our south plus Swaziland. Among those gun deaths are people killed by police at a rate hundreds of times that in some other countries. Counting those killings as crime or as crime prevention fails, in either case, to recommend the U.S. criminal justice and prison system to the world. The fact is that, compared to other wealthy nations, you are more likely in the land of the free both to be locked up and to be killed with a firearm.

Meanwhile our prison system costs a fortune and does tremendous damage to many of the prisoners who, for the most part, it hardly even pretends to rehabilitate, as well as damaging their families and communities, their future victims, and arguably degrading many of those employed by prisons and our culture as a whole.

The United States has some of the world’s leading inventors, entertainers, and academics — including those studying prisons. There are all kinds of things the U.S. could export to the world’s benefit. Instead, it is exporting its system of mass incarceration. And most people in the U.S. don’t even realize it’s happening.

Without public approval or awareness (and I’d be willing to bet few Congress members could tell you much about it), the U.S. government is marketing its criminal justice system, training prison guards, and facilitating the construction of U.S.-style prisons in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. (Listen to next week’s Talk Nation Radio with Nasim Chatha.)

Results thus far include higher incarceration rates, overcrowding, the isolation of prisoners from each other and at a distance from their homes, greater deprivation of sunlight, and other familiar symptoms. You’re welcome, world!

A new book called Start Here: A Practical Guide to Reducing Incarceration by Greg Berman and Julian Adler provides proven methods of advancing what we ought to be doing: decarcerating this country. They recommend three general approaches.

First: Engage the public in neighborhood efforts to provide teens with a supportive community, nonviolent activities, educational support, and career opportunities, especially in the most suffering neighborhoods that generate hugely disproportionate numbers of arrests. It’s no secret that this general theme can be expanded to include shifting our priorities toward preschool, college, healthcare, and living wages, all with positive results for the crime rate.

Second: Treat criminal defendants respectfully. The evidence here may be surprising. When those charged, convicted, and punished believe they’ve been treated fairly by law enforcement, they are far more likely to respect the law in the future.

Third: Put people into community-based interventions, monitored drug-treatment, and restitution programs rather than jails. One-quarter of U.S. prisoners are drug offenders. Three-quarters of those in local jails are there for nonviolent crimes. Many are in jail for the inability to pay fines, or bail, that wealthier defendants can afford. And research suggests that even short jail terms can lead minor offenders, or those not yet convicted of anything, on toward more serious crimes.

I dissent from Berman and Adler’s advocacy for varying prison sentences based on a calculation of the risk of recidivism that factors in all sorts of things unrelated to the crime committed, and I don’t share their enthusiasm for using medications to cure addictions. But I think the evidence is piling up in support of their arguments that both nonviolent and violent criminals can be rehabilitated, and that the more that rehabilitation holistically assists in establishing a fulfilling life outside of a cage, the more successful it will be.

Leave a comment