The moral failures of
prison-industrial complex, June 20, 2015 America
BARACK OBAMA toured the El Reno Federal Correction Institution in
Mr Obama is starting small, calling for increased judicial discretion for non-violent drug offenders. John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House, has indicated his support for reforming federal sentences for non-violent drug crimes, which means something might actually get done. Federal-level sentencing reform for drug crimes is certainly most welcome, but it would barely put a dent in
To really roll back the prison-industrial complex, it is necessary to reduce sentences for violent criminals at the state level, too. That's a tougher sell. It involves not only considering its racial inequities and costly bloat, but also the moral failures of a system that doles out punishments that are out of proportion with their crimes.
To weigh the merits and morality of
Defenders of harsh sentences claim that they both deter crime and prevent it by keeping many criminals off the streets. The evidence for deterrence is weak. A 2014 report on incarceration from the National Academy of Sciences explains that criminals are deterred primarily by the risk of getting caught; longer sentences have had no discernible effect. Longer prison terms affect crime rates mainly through the "incapacitation effect", which keeps those most prone to crime locked up. However, as Messrs Raphael and Stoll explain in a paper for the Brookings Institution, the incapacitation effect peters out considerably as the incarceration rate rises. The worst criminals tend to get locked up even in much more lenient regimes. Locking away large numbers of less dangerous people for long periods delivers very little in additional public safety. Given how high
Messrs Raphael and Stoll point to the recent example of
Harsh sentences may not do much to ensure safer streets, but maybe criminals deserve them. Plenty of people think that
So what are we to make of the leap in time typically served for violent crimes between 1984 and 2009? Either we were unjustly lenient then, or we are unjustly punitive now. Did we only lately wake up to the real gravity of murder, or are we now overreacting?
The fact that
"But they're violent criminals!" you say. "Rapists and murders!" Indeed, many are. And they have been, and are being, duly punished for their crimes. Those who have served a proportional sentence, and have proven themselves worthy, deserve to be restored to public life.
Tough-on-crime types are likely to rebut this sort of position with arguments about deterrence and public safety. And it's true that keeping people in prison too long prevents a little crime, though not much. However, deterring crime by keeping people in prison too long is equivalent, from a logical and moral point of view, to rounding up ex-cons who have already served their time and throwing them back in the clink for a while, even if they've committed no new crimes, simply because some of them eventually will. We wouldn't stomach this kind of pre-emptive incapacitation. So Americans shouldn't be willing to tolerate it when it involves keeping people in prison after they deserve to be released.
It bears mentioning that even those who are released are now treated more harshly than they were. Many ex-felons are banned from voting, serving on juries and acquiring occupational licenses necessary for certain professions. Even after serving parole, and going without a new offence for years, ex-offenders may remain ineligible for pensions, disability benefits, public housing, food stamps and government assistance for higher education and job training. This pushes disadvantaged ex-convicts deep into the margins, making it cruelly difficult, and sometimes impossible, to find a path to a normal, un-criminal life.
What's the reason for this? How did
A reflexive dehumanisation of "criminals" and "felons" discourages the exercise of real judgment in sentencing and probation. It allows us to sleep well when judges commit injustice in the name of justice, consigning people to captivity long after they ought to be let free. And it helps us rationalise the disenfranchisement of those who are, eventually, released.
Now that Mr Obama has made it a priority to point out the problems inherent in