Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Beyond Lock 'Em Up and Throw Away the Key

In the middle of the debate regarding same-sex marriage, torture techniques, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Nancy Pelosi, and the imminent demise of the Republican Party came this article from Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb. At first I was tempted myself to take it with a grain of salt, since it first appeared in Parade magazine, which is often the home of celebrity fluff or softball news. This might be why it wasn't covered much in more reputable periodicals and made almost no impact on the public consciousness. Yet, quite honestly, this issue rarely finds its way into public discussion and is found even less in the blogsophere. It's a matter that liberals can't really sink their teeth into and one that conservatives believe is pretty much an open and shut matter: prison reform.

As often happens when the mainstream media or the substantive blog voices take aim at a few singular issues rather than spreading its coverage more thinly, important matters like these slip through the cracks. To wit, prison reform goes well beyond just the cell block walls. It touches such hot button issues as arrests and convictions for simple drug possession, the staggering number of African-American men currently under lock and key, the Mexican drug cartel skirmishes still smoldering south of the border, the number of inmates in prison suffering from untreated or at best, ill-treated mental illness, and the ever-increasing tax burden of keeping people behind bars for years.

To include a brief passage from the article itself---

The United States has by far the world's highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world's population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world's reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, a rate nearly five times the average worldwide of 158 for every 100,000. In addition, more than 5 million people who recently left jail remain under "correctional supervision," which includes parole, probation, and other community sanctions. All told, about one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, in jail, or on supervised release. This all comes at a very high price to taxpayers: Local, state, and federal spending on corrections adds up to about $68 billion a year.

Furthermore, incarceration has become an industry. What was originally intended to be a means to isolate from the rest of society the worst offenders in an effort to keep the public safe has now become a profitable endeavor. Billions of dollars are spent every year building new prisons. With these new correctional facilities come jobs for guards, wardens, administrative staff, low-skill employees, and those who make a living out of designing and constructing them from bottom to top. In a rapidly-changing economy moving increasingly towards information dispersal rather than unskilled industry, the corrections industry has stepped in to fill the void left by mills and plants.

The consequences of this, as you might well imagine, are grim. Prisoners who likely need to serve only probation or house arrest are sent to jail instead. Jail terms are often extended beyond any reasonable length of time and the pressure placed upon judges and prosecutors to opt for an extended sentence makes them more, not less likely, to send convicted offenders to the big house. Alternative methods such as counseling or prisoner education which seek to reform behavior rather than harshly punish it have frequently proven to have achieved higher rates of success and fewer rates of recidivism.

Quite simply, what concerns me most is that the methods which aim to directly confront the unresolved and often barely confronted problems of a convicted felon have proven to be far more effective than those which summarily punish wrongdoing with impunity. In addition to being unfair to opt purely for jail time rather than at least consider other options, automatic incarceration is also extremely inefficient and wasteful from a monetary standpoint, particularly towards taxpayers who foot the bill. I am reminded again of how often we try to attack a problem by addressing its effects, not its root causes, and this is one such glaring instance. I marvel, however, at the number of people who will get up in arms about the prospect of having to fund basic social services or public infrastructure projects, but will consider their tax dollars well spent provided they send criminals to prison and in doing so, keep them there. I firmly believe that our priorities need to be seriously reevaluated.


Punch said...


Jerome said...

Agreed! This was an excellent post.