Why do we lock up so many people?
The Caging of America
Huge numbers of American prisoners serve sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world. The basic reality is not that of the lock and key but that of the lock and clock. This 2012 article is from The New Yorker, Jan 30.
by Adam GopnikWhat prisoners try to convey to the free is how the presence of time as something being done to you, instead of something you do things with, alters the mind at every moment. For American prisoners, huge numbers of whom are serving sentences much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world -- Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teen-agers to life imprisonment -- time becomes in every sense this thing you serve.
Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today -- perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America -- more than six million -- than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. That city of the confined and the controlled, Lockuptown, is now the second largest in the United States.
The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. Ours is, bottom to top, a “carceral state,” in the flat verdict of Conrad Black, the former conservative press lord and newly minted reformer, who right now finds himself imprisoned in Florida, thereby adding a new twist to an old joke: A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.
The scale and the brutality of our prisons are the moral scandal of American life. Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience of the over fifty thousand men in solitary confinement. Prison rape is so endemic -- more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year -- that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The normalization of prison rape -- like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows -- will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized.
Prisons seep obliquely into our fashions and manners; teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration.
In the current mess, accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You may be spared the death penalty if you can show a problem with your appointed defender, but it is much harder if there is merely enormous accumulated evidence that you weren’t guilty in the first place and the jury got it wrong. America is famous both for its process-driven judicial system (“The bastard got off on a technicality,” the cop-show detective fumes) and for the harshness and inhumanity of its prisons.
Millionaire Conrad Black, at the high end, has a scary and persuasive picture of how his counsel, the judge, and the prosecutors all merrily congratulated each other on their combined professional excellence just before sending him off to the hoosegow for several years. If a millionaire feels that way, imagine how the ordinary culprit must feel.
We should go into court with an understanding of what a crime is and what justice is like, and then let common sense and compassion and specific circumstance take over. In “The Castle,” the Australian movie about a family fighting eminent-domain eviction, its hapless lawyer, asked in court to point to the specific part of the Australian constitution that the eviction violates, says desperately, “It’s . . . just the vibe of the thing.” The criminal law should once again be more like the common law, with judges and juries not merely finding fact but making law on the basis of universal principles of fairness, circumstance, and seriousness, and crafting penalties to the exigencies of the crime.
Instead of common law we have private prisons whose interest lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. The 2005 annual report of the Corrections Corporation of America: The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices, or through the decriminalization of certain activities.
The epidemic of imprisonment seems to track the dramatic decline in crime over the same period. The more bad guys there are in prison, it appears, the less crime there has been in the streets. Thirty years ago, crime was supposed to be a permanent feature of the city, produced by an alienated underclass of super-predators. Yet now it isn’t. In 1990, crime started falling: across the country by a standard measure of about forty per cent; in New York City by as much as eighty per cent.
The forty per cent drop across the continent -- indeed, there was a decline throughout the Western world -- took place for reasons that are as mysterious in suburban Ottawa as they are in the South Bronx. The usual explanations -- including demographic shifts -- simply can’t account for what must be accounted for. This makes the international decline look slightly eerie. Trends and fashions and fads and pure contingencies happen in other parts of our social existence; it may be that there are fashions and cycles in criminal behavior, too, for reasons that are just as arbitrary.
But the additional forty per cent drop in crime that seems peculiar to New York didn’t come from jailing super predators, driving down the number of unwed mothers, altering welfare culture. Nor were there cures for injustice, discrimination, poverty. There was no significant change in the ethnic makeup or the average wealth or educational levels of New Yorkers as violent crime more or less vanished. “Broken windows” or “turnstile jumping” policing, that is, cracking down on small visible offenses in order to create an atmosphere that refused to license crime, seems to have had a negligible effect. Arrests for “visible” nonviolent crime -- e.g., street prostitution and public gambling -- mostly went down through the period.
Instead, the N.Y.P.D. began putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened -- “hot-spot policing.” The cops also began “profiling.” This was not so much racial, since in any given neighborhood all the suspects were likely to be of the same color, as social, involving the thousand small clues that policemen recognized already. Minority communities paid a disproportionate price in kids stopped and frisked, and detained, but they also earned a disproportionate gain in crime reduced.
Crime is recreational, part of a life style; it’s a thing people do when they get used to doing it. And therein lies its essential fragility. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry. Conservatives don’t like this view because it shows that being tough doesn’t help; liberals don’t like it because apparently being nice doesn’t help, either.
The ugly side of stop-and-frisk can be alleviated. We need to make crimes that are the occasion for stop-and-frisks real crimes, not crimes like marijuana possession.
Very few people, rich or poor, should be in prison for a nonviolent crime. Neither the streets nor the society is made safer by having marijuana users or peddlers locked up, let alone with the horrific sentences now dispensed so easily. The cost is so enormous in lives ruined and money spent that the obvious thing to do is not to enforce the law less but to change it now. Dr. Johnson said once that manners make law, and that when manners alter, the law must, too. The decriminalization of marijuana would help end the epidemic of imprisonment.
If crime drops on the street, criminals coming out of prison stop committing crimes. What matters is the incidence of crime in the world, and the continuity of a culture of crime, not some “lesson learned” in prison.
For that matter, white-collar crime, too, happens through an intersection of pathology and opportunity; getting the S.E.C. busy ending the opportunity is a good way to limit the range of the pathology. No social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two.
Ending sentencing for drug misdemeanors, decriminalizing marijuana, leaving judges free to use common sense (and, where possible, getting judges who are judges rather than politicians) are acts that will help end the epidemic of imprisonment as they helped end the plague of crime.
The rate of incarceration in most other rich, free countries, whatever the differences in their histories, is remarkably steady. The natural rate of incarceration seems to hover right around a hundred men per hundred thousand people. (That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get lower in rich, homogeneous countries—just that it never gets much higher in countries otherwise like our own.) It seems that one man in every thousand once in a while does a truly bad thing. All other things being equal, the point of a justice system should be to identify that thousandth guy, find a way to keep him from harming other people, and give everyone else a break.
To see the whole article, click here .
JJS: An article much longer than usual but hopefully worth it. There are a few lessons for us who’d reform economies. 1, Crime is costly, making people open to ways to save money, such as economic justice. 2, More people are becoming able to consider “radical” ideas, and so may also consider novel economic policies. And 3, little things do make a big difference, if they are the right little things, so we need to identify what steps we can take as scattered reformers that will advance the cause.
Editor Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics and helped prepare a course for the UN on geonomics. To take the “Land Rights” course, click here .
Amazon Prevails in South Carolina as the US …
An international panel declares ...
All In the Family 1960s’ video clip
Email this article Sign up for free Progress Report updates via email
What are your views? Share your opinions with The Progress Report:
Page One Page Two Archive Discussion Room Letters What's Geoism?