U.S. Prisons: Sense and Sentencing

America, behind razor wire.

When someone is released from prison, the common expression is that he has paid his debt to society. Pay he did, but what did society collect? Usually, society has spent an enormous amount of money to inflict deeper wounds on an already damaged human soul. The convict loses not just his months or years behind bars, but his job prospects, his chance at a passport, his future. It’s lose-lose, it’s self-inflicted on both sides, and it happens more all the time. In fact, the U.S. prison population has increased eight-fold in the last 30 years. We have more incarcerated people per 100,000 than any other country in the world. Next, at barely more than half our rate, is Rwanda.

The creation of a private prison industry has hardly helped. Contractors running prisons for profit are routinely granted guarantees of high occupancy. So profit — the single most powerful force in a capitalist economy — is pushing inmate populations higher.

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Finally, cracks are appearing in the wall of political convenience promoting the idea that we can keep enough people behind bars to hide all our social ills there, too. A bipartisan bill recently introduced in the Senate would begin to reverse the trend toward less discretion for judges, more and longer mandatory sentences and the treatment of drug offenses as major crimes. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, is one of the sponsors, but the key figure is Charles Grassley, the conservative Republican from Iowa. As chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Grassley has for many years opposed the easing of mandatory sentences for repeat offenders.

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This legislation, which may pass, is a very small step in treating a very large problem. For one thing, inmates in federal custody account for only about six percent of prisoners in the United States. Still, the bill is important if it signals a genuine reversal of the long-term trend in the use of prisons.

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A few facts, mostly courtesy of Laura Dimon at Policy.Mic: The United States spent $80 billion on prisons in 2010, and the number has been rising. Every dime of it is a dime not spent on education, the surest deterrent to lives of crime. The country has five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the prisoners. The futile “war on drugs” is responsible for most of the mass incarceration. African Americans represent about 12 percent of illicit drug users, but 40 percent of the people imprisoned for criminal drug law violations.

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Add to all that the federal Justice Department’s finding that more than three-fourths of released prisoners are arrested again within five years. Is any “rehabilitation” (a loaded term) going on in the prison system at all?

The short answer is no. We have, in fact, become a society in which brutal mistreatment, violence, rape and the daily threat of death in prison are not only tolerated, but expected; not only known about, but joked about.

So far, this has been a catalog of fairly well-known but widely ignored problems. The question is, what do to? Glib answers are everywhere: Copy the Scandinavian “open prison” model. Stop the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders. Release inmates and close half the prisons. Build more prisons. Promote jobs for ex-convicts and parolees. But nothing happens. The problem calls for intense, sophisticated study and rapid legal changes based on solid information. It calls for a nonpartisan commission with members from academe, prison administration, the former inmate population and everyone concerned — except the self-serving private prison industry.

The charge to such a commission would be daunting, because before any solutions can be settled on, the commission would have to decide what its overall purpose is; that is, what prisons are for. There’s no easy answer to that one. To conservatives, and perhaps to most of America, they are instruments of punishment. To private industry, they are profit centers. To progressives, they are (or rather, should be) institutions of reform, education, personal growth and life improvement. The answer to that question, as well as the others, would, of course, depend on the makeup of the commission, which is why the group should be diverse, but consisting of people who are intelligent, sincere, well respected and dedicated to improvement of the system.

Senator Chuck Grassley
Unlikely, very recent proponent
of very modest prison reform:
Senator Chuck Grassley

Two objections to such a commission would be raised. The first is that the appointment of a blue-ribbon panel is the political answer to every problem so intractable that no one expects a real solution. The second is that we already have a string of commissions considering prison problems. Both are true, so let’s answer them, one at a time.

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The problem is not intractable, but, as the Grassley-Durbin bill demonstrates, ripe for treatment. Congress needs genuine guidance on this one, partly to craft legislation that is informed by facts and considered, expert opinion, partly to use that opinion as political cover.

As to the various commissions already in existence, they are, no doubt, doing fine work. But there’s a commission on recidivism, one on rape prevention, one on prison health care and so on. Their work can be incorporated into a comprehensive report, where it is appropriate, but these problems are all of a piece. The work of a prison-reform commission needs to be exhaustive and comprehensive.

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Any president, of either party, could initiate such a move and make herself a historic figure.