Rethinking Prisons

From The Atlantic:

Increasingly, GPS devices such as the one I wore are looking like an appealing alternative to conventional incarceration, as it becomes ever clearer that, in the United States at least, traditional prison has become more or less synonymous with failed prison. By almost any metric, our practice of locking large numbers of people behind bars has proved at best ineffective and at worst a national disgrace. According to a recent Pew report, 2.3 million Americans are currently incarcerated—enough people to fill the city of Houston. Since 1983, the number of inmates has more than tripled and the total cost of corrections has jumped sixfold, from $10.4 billion to $68.7 billion. In California, the cost per inmate has kept pace with the cost of an Ivy League education, at just shy of $50,000 a year.

This might make some sense if crime rates had also tripled. But they haven’t: rather, even as crime has fallen, the sentences served by criminals have grown, thanks in large part to mandatory minimums and draconian three-strikes rules—politically popular measures that have shown little deterrent effect but have left the prison system overflowing with inmates. The vogue for incarceration might also make sense if the prisons repaid society’s investment by releasing reformed inmates who behaved better than before they were locked up. But that isn’t the case either: half of those released are back in prison within three years.

Indeed, research by the economists Jesse Shapiro of the University of Chicago and M. Keith Chen of Yale indicates that the stated purpose of incarceration, which is to place prisoners under harsh conditions on the assumption that they will be “scared straight,” is actively counterproductive. Such conditions—and U.S. prisons are astonishingly harsh, with as many as 20 percent of male inmates facing sexual assault—typically harden criminals, making them more violent and predatory. Essentially, when we lock someone up today, we are agreeing to pay a large (and growing) sum of money merely to put off dealing with him until he is released in a few years, often as a greater menace to society than when he went in.

Devices such as the ExacuTrack, along with other advances in both the ways we monitor criminals and the ways we punish them for their transgressions, suggest a revolutionary possibility: that we might turn the conventional prison system inside out for a substantial number of inmates, doing away with the current, expensive array of guards and cells and fences, in favor of a regimen of close, constant surveillance on the outside and swift, certain punishment for any deviations from an established, legally unobjectionable routine. The potential upside is enormous. Not only might such a system save billions of dollars annually, it could theoretically produce far better outcomes, training convicts to become law-abiders rather than more-ruthless lawbreakers. The ultimate result could be lower crime rates, at a reduced cost, and with considerably less inhumanity in the bargain.

Moreover, such a change would in fact be less radical than it might at first appear. An underappreciated fact of our penitentiary system is that of all Americans “serving time” at any given moment, only a third are actually behind bars. The rest—some 5 million of them—are circulating among the free on conditional supervised release either as parolees, who are freed from prison before their sentences conclude, or as probationers, who walk free in lieu of jail time.

More to unpack here.  Prison reform isn’t an isolated issue, it goes hand in hand with drug reform and rehabilitation reform.

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