“Do the crime, do the time” is a pretty accurate summary of American judicial philosophy. The assumption that criminals should be put in prison is so fundamental that most people have trouble imagining anything else. However, there are more effective and less expensive solutions to many of the problems generally labeled as “crime.”
First of all, what is a crime? An act that is against the law? Not too long ago, it was against the law for a woman to vote, or for a white person to marry a non-white person. Those aren’t crimes anymore, but there are so many other laws on the books that almost everyone could be considered a criminal. Have you broken the speed limit? Gotten paid in cash that you didn’t declare on your income tax return? Broken any one of the thousands of obscure rules and regulations that are on the Federal, state, or municipal codes? Well, you’re a criminal, and the only thing standing between you and a jail cell is the fact that some politician hasn’t yet declared a “war” on whatever type of crime it is you’ve committed.
Being “tough on crime” is and always has been political hogwash. Politicians know that prison doesn’t solve anything, but it looks like action, and voters like action. So, in the words of “Chicago” the musical, “Razzle-dazzle ’em, and they’ll never catch wise.” In fact, even though the USA incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any country on Earth (with the statistically anomalous exception of the tiny nation of Seychelles), there are still plenty of people in favor of raising that percentage even higher. Because nothing says success like more and more of what hasn’t worked.
The fundamental problem with prison is that it creates more problems than it solves. Of course violent offenders – rapists, murderers, muggers – need to be locked up, to protect the rest of us, but the majority of inmates are not violent offenders. Maybe they got caught with drugs, or they fell behind on child support, or they stole a car, or they forged a prescription … Any number of offenses that don’t actually involve physically harming someone. Yet, once those people have served their 2, 5 or 10 year sentences, they have virtually no options. Not only does the prison environment have a “hardening” effect on inmates that often makes them unfit for normal society, it’s extremely difficult to get a job after prison, because most major employers conduct background checks and automatically disqualify anyone who has served time.
This is partially why the recidivism rate in the USA is so awful. Over 75% of prisoners are arrested again within five years of being released. Prison doesn’t dissuade people from crime, it makes them unfit for anything other than crime.
The negative impact of the carceral state isn’t limited to those stuck behind bars; the rest of us are paying for their crimes as well. Literally. The cost of housing one inmate is between $30,000 and $60,000 per year. Research has shown that diverting even just 10% of substance-addicted prisoners into treatment programs would not only be more humane and effective than imprisoning them, it would save taxpayers over $4 billion per year. Since an estimated 50% of prisoners have an alcohol or drug problem (which is another major contributing factor to the abysmal recidivism rates), those numbers add up quickly.
Sometimes, a work of fiction makes it easier to understand reality. In “The Ethical Assassin,” author David Liss points out that mass incarceration isn’t a rational choice that society makes, it’s an ideological one.
Everybody knows that prisons don’t work to rehabilitate. If, in fact, we know they do just the opposite, which is to say they turn minor criminals into major ones, why do we have them? Why do we send our social outcasts to criminal academies?
~Melford, “The Ethical Assassin”
The answer, according to the characters in Liss’s novel, is that while prisons don’t serve society, they do serve a system that benefits from a perpetual underclass. The corrections industry is big business, for both the public and private sector, as this chart from the Prison Policy Initiative illustrates. Corrections workers, lawyers, bail bondsmen, contractors, food-service and healthcare companies: they’re all in line to get paid, and none of them want to see a drop in revenue. This creates a perverse incentive to imprison as many people as possible, and to rehabilitate as few as possible.
Indeed, rather than consider the assumptions underpinning this system, municipalities are doubling down on it, billing prisoners for the expense of their incarceration. While this policy superficially makes sense – why should law-abiding citizens pay for “three hots and a cot” for people who victimize them? – this “debtor’s prison” approach does nothing but ensure that prisoners, once released, will almost certainly be arrested again – not for an actual crime, but for not paying their monetary debt to society.
In any system, things are the way they are because people benefit from it. The question is, which people? This isn’t conspiracy theory, this is just business as usual. If you’re a prison guard, or a bail bondsman, or your company has a lucrative contract with the local jail, supporting prison reform would be against your self-interest. Even worse, it’s easy to justify that position by arguing that prison reformers want to let dangerous felons back onto the street, and you’re working to prevent that. But it’s nonsense! As the fictional character in Liss’s novel pointed out, “criminals go to prison and learn how to become better criminals.”
Consider this: a 19-year-old kid boosts some merchandise from a store, gets caught, and the cops find a dimebag of pot in his pocket. That teenager may not be a model citizen, but he could still turn things around. Or, he could have. As soon as he’s put into prison with a population of adult inmates, it is virtually guaranteed that, when he is released, he will be more violent and have fewer opportunities to live a productive life. Is that good for society? Does it make sense for us to pay $30,000+ per inmate, per year, to turn nonviolent offenders into violent ones? Wouldn’t it be far more humane and cost-effective to focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment? Or, at the very least, to expand programs – such as Louisiana’s “Re-Entry Court” – that enroll nonviolent offenders in job-training and counseling initiatives as soon as they’re incarcerated, so that by the time they get out, they have some options?
Even for violent criminals, re-education works better than prison. In one pilot program, “an intensive re-educational program with violent male offenders in the San Francisco jails reduced the level of violence in the jail to zero for a year at a time. Even more important, participation in this program for as little as four months reduced the frequency of violent reoffending after leaving the jail by 83 percent, compared with a matched control group in a conventional jail. In addition to enhancing public safety, this program saved the taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent on it.”
To break the systemic cycle of incarceration, unemployment and violence, we simply can not keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. We, as a society, must demand that prison-based profits take a back seat to public safety, human decency, and common sense. Prisoners may be doing the time, but we’re all paying the price.