Normative Narratives

Transparency Report: Prison Paradox Redux

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A few months back, I blogged about what I termed the “Prison Paradox“:

“The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980, and a major reason is that prisoners serve longer terms than before”

The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America’s incarceration rate has risen to be the world’s highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities.”

“‘Raymond V. Liedka, of Oakland University in Michigan, and colleagues have found that the crime-fighting effects of prison disappear once the incarceration rate gets too high. “If the buildup goes beyond a tipping point, then additional incarceration is not going to gain our society any reduction in crime, and may lead to increased crime,’ Dr. Liedka said.”

“‘Prison has become the new poverty trap,’ said Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist. ‘It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.’

Long-term lockup rates, and poor job prospects for ex-cons, great a “prison culture” in poor neighborhoods. Older ex-con’s believe a return to jail is inevitable, young children believe jail is inevitable (because of what they have witnessed growing up); this pessimism leads to poor decision making and ultimately creates a self-fulfilling cycle of poor prospects, poor decision making, and subsequent prison terms (and perpetuates the inter-generational aspect of the poverty trap).

As the federal and state governments look for areas to make spending cuts, it would be beneficial for policymakers to revisit reducing prison sentences for certain crimes. It seems that shorter prison sentences would save money today via a lower prison bill, and save us money in the future in the form of lower future entitlement spending. Less spending on long prison terms and greater spending on social programs (which enhance ones future prospects and thus makes crime a less attractive alternative) should combine to break the “prison poverty trap”.

Evidence of a drop in U.S. prison population suggests that law-makers are beginning to take a more pragmatic approach towards punishing criminal activity:

“The prison population in the United States dropped in 2012 for the third consecutive year, according to federal statistics released on Thursday, in what criminal justice experts said was the biggest decline in the nation’s recent history, signaling a shift away from an almost four-decade policy of mass imprisonment.”

“The number of inmates in state and federal prisons decreased by 1.7 percent, to an estimated 1,571,013 in 2012 from 1,598,783 in 2011, according to figures released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an arm of the Justice Department. Although the percentage decline appeared small, the fact that it followed decreases in 2011 and 2010 offers persuasive evidence of what some experts say is a “sea change” in America’s approach to criminal punishment.”

“In recent years, tightened state budgets, plummeting crime rates, changes in sentencing laws and shifts in public opinion have combined to reverse the trend. Experts on prison policy said that the continuing decline appears to be more than a random fluctuation.”

“Most observers agree that the recession has played a role in shrinking prison populations.”

“Though the trend may have begun out of a need for belt-tightening, it had grown into a national effort to rethink who should go to prison and for how long”

Changes in state and federal sentencing laws for lower-level offenses like those involving drugs have played a central role in the shift, he and others said, with many states setting up diversion programs for offenders as an alternative to prison. And some states have softened their policies on parole, no longer automatically sending people back to prison for parole violations.”

“Changing public attitudes are also a major driver behind the declining prison numbers. Dropping crime rates over the last 20 years have reduced public fears and diminished the interest of politicians in running tough-on-crime campaigns. And public polls consistently show that Americans are now more interested in spending money on education and health care than on building more prisons.”

“A year or even two years is a blip and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, but three years starts to look like a trend,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research group based in Washington. But he said that the rate of inmates incarcerated in the United States continued to be “dramatically higher” than in other countries and that the changes so far were “relatively modest compared to the scale of the problem.”

It should be emphasized that this is only the tip of the iceberg. But progress must start somewhere, and both empirical evidence and public opinion appear to have shifted the way that law-makers address criminal punishment.

Less money spent on prisons opens up fiscal space for crime prevention and deterrence programs.

Crime prevention programs hit on the root causes of criminal behavior– a combination of socio-economic realities and a criminal / prison culture that often makes a life of crime a self-fulfilling and then self-perpetuating reality. By investing more in schools, healthcare (including mental healthcare, which is unquestionably linked to anti-social and criminal behavior), and other social programs that promote meritocracy and social mobility, disenfranchised youths will have more reason to be optimistic and make long-term investments in themselves that reflect that optimism. By having less parents in jail and more at home, parental income and guidance can act as a substitute for gang affiliation and money from criminal activities.

Part of non-jail punishment for minor criminal activities should be education on the detrimental effects of crime on youth and society, so that those who are given a fresh chance pass on these lessons to a younger generation which looks up to them.

Crime deterrence involves education on the detrimental effects of crime on oneself and society (overlapping with crime prevention), and increased spending on police officers. Having more officers on the street makes crime a less appealing alternative (especially in an environment where alternatives actually exist), while also providing security for hard working innocent people (who ultimately pay not only for both operating prisons and police officers via taxation).

People need to be held responsible for their actions, but the punishment must fit the crime. Making an example of individuals in an attempt to deter future crime does not work. What it does is impose an unfair burden on both the tax-payer and creates a vicious cycle of socio-economic degeneration that disproportionately affects poor people and minorities.

Violent criminals and multiple offenders must be kept off the streets. But imposing long jail sentences on first-time-non-violent offenders and parole violators can be counter-productive, turning misguided individuals into career criminals.

In assessing the impacts of a more restrained and pragmatic approach to prison sentencing, we must wait for significant reductions in incarceration rates as well as a “time lag”, as human development is a dynamic process. For now, we can be optimistic that after decades of misguided policy, we seem to have hit a turning point.

“This is the beginning of the end of mass incarceration,” said Natasha Frost, associate dean of Northeastern University’s school of criminology and criminal justice.

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2 thoughts on “Transparency Report: Prison Paradox Redux

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