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Lock-em up and throw away the key

November 30, 2011

Incarceration Trends:
What’s it to be; a Field of dreams or nightmares…

Most of us rarely if ever think about the nearly 2.5-MILLION (take just a moment to think about that number) people in this country who are currently behind bars. Why should we care, they (those criminals) are safely locked away far from us; paying for their crimes; the problem is, we are paying for them as well.
Sadly most of these people are there for all the wrong reasons… for them,as well as for us.

The vast majority are there as a consequence of the so-called “war on drugs”, its mandates for increased enforcement and stiffer sentencing provisions have driven a 700% increase in the US prison population since 1970. That’s a Quadrupling of the incarceration rate over the last 35 years.
Which means were locking up people with health problems!

Vs. – focusing on reducing violent crimes and locking up violent-criminals: we could do much better
And spend a lot less money…
The annual budget to run state prisons cost each person in the United States $104 dollars. Altogether states spend a combined $47 billion dollars each year to lock people up.
53% of these are for drugs and drug related charges.
56% of state inmates have a history of mental health problems.
It’s a fact that it is much cheaper and more effective to treat than to incarcerate; yet we continue to lock up substance abusers and the mentally ill at unprecedented rates.

Why: were tough on crime, that’s why! At least that’s what we keep telling ourselves. Sadly the jokes on us the truth is; were only being tough on ourselves not crime. Study after study shows that locking up large numbers of people has little to know effect on crime rates, but it does on tax rates, they go up.

Other studies consistently show that incarceration doesn’t work; crime rates do not now nor have they ever correlated with how many persons we imprison and recidivism is at an all time high. Rather rates of crime trend with the economy and job market imagine that.

If we were smart about it we would do something other than throw huge sums of money at a system which is spurious at best, destructive at worst.

We have alternatives, Lo that we had the courage to use them…..

Will the US still make use of parole in 2020? Parole will almost certainly be used in and beyond the year 2020, (a mere 8 years and two months from now). Presently there are nearly 5 million people currently on either probation or parole vs. some form of incarceration. This number does not include those who are on non-supervised release into society. The implication being that if only a small percentage of these persons were to be incarcerated; the current dimensions of the problem(s), re prison overcrowding would be increased dramatically. There is normally a 7 year lag time between legislative authorizations – to a fully operational correctional institution. So doing away with parole would require a comprehensive long-term strategy dealing with the ensuing many fold increases of incarcerated persons both (federal and state) including all the connected ills i.e. (the “invisible punishment”) associated with this policy. However my guess would be we have little to fear from this scenario given that very few of our politicians nor many of their constituents seem either inclined to or capable of such prescience. As such it is very likely that to safeguard their reelections the current pattern of myopic reactionary policies which exploit public fears and prejudices et al sadly will continue well beyond 2020.

In this country we lock up more African-Americans than any other group of people. If arrested for the same crime African-Americans are nearly 3-times more likely to receive a jail or prison sentence than a white person. WTF is that?
I have on occasion thought about the long-term consequences of having ones’ ancestors abducted, imprisoned, transported, and then sold like chattel into slavery thru multiple generations and every time I conclude the effects would be horrendous. Not just for next generation, but also for the many succeeding generations that follow, especially when these persons remain in the nation or society which enslaved them originally. How would one overcome that I wonder and what attitudes and beliefs would this instill deep in a person’s psyche? I don’t think it’s simply a matter of letting bygones’ be bygones’ rather it seems to me that it would take a long time and great effort to repair.
Media sensationalism, fuels public opinion, which in turn creates political posturing and quick fix policies, that often either make the situation worse or accomplish very little. Plato had a fix for this problem. In “The Republic” he outlined a/the perfect society in which two of the cardinal rules were: Rulers cannot have and have’ers cannot rule, thus eliminating the problem of the “Gold-en Rule”, which is those with the gold make the rules. Another fix might come from a more informed citizenry who if they could might see themselves as part of the continuous community we call a nation where each part is connected to and affects the other parts, laying the groundwork for a more enlightened perspective, less reactionary opinions, and more rational policies toward solutions.
It’s true most people just want to sit back and let the TV wash over them, that is until something upsets their cart. For a long time I was no exception. For some this maybe an insoluble condition, maybe not. I have at times encountered what I call “invincible ignorance” at which point I simply laid down my cards and left the table so to speak.
It wasn’t until I was looking into European history as it relates to the principles of the “Enlightenment” that I began to change my mind. My thinking went along these lines. If I was descended from persons or groups of persons who had been conquered, colonized, or uprooted and dislocated how would these effects be translated to me generationally speaking. Then I added culture, race and skin color as factors, reasoning the effects might be somewhat dampened over time if I and my oppressors were physically similar resulting in greater homogeneity vs. dissimilar which would I thought have a more far-reaching and destructive dynamic which may in fact increase thru time due to the physical contrast itself. Mush of this I thought is because the sense of sight is, for most of us a first order sense, and by that I mean we tend to reify much of what we see long before we ever think about what it is that we’re seeing. Hence the expression, “seeing is believing”, which is far more true than many of us realize. Another factor I thought is the tendency (which I think is really much more of an evolutionarily conserved core survival mechanism)- for many of us whether we realize it or not to be significantly influenced by ancestors we’ve never met and events we know nothing of but which affected them (our ancestors). Many of these influences are subtle while others can be pronounced. This is a little simplistic but for illustration let’s use persons you may know who are either Ford people, or Chevy, or Chrysler etc. How many of them would you think have really considered their position vs. those who merely inherited this from family or friends? Very few I would think really formulated their position objectively and free of authoritarian influences. But many if you press them will vigorously defend their, (and by definition here the legacy driven) position as to the better make of car. Or for instance, how many persons here in the west have really thought about the reasons they use knives, forks, and spoons while eating? Yet if you were to challenge them on this I’m sure you would be instructed as to the many sound reasons for doing so vs. say eating with sticks or using your fingers any of which are capable of getting the job done. Again, I would argue this to be an example of a legacy driven behavior/value. So if any of my thinking is in the ball park, imagine the legacy effects upon those whose ancestors were enslaved and currently reside as a physically distinct minority in that same society. I would think it profound.
Regarding the point about the who and why correctional policies are made, usually these persons are more focused on short-term “fixes” than lucid long-term effective solutions based on all the factors involved. For instance what about decriminalization; assuming this is in regards to the so-called “recreational” drug user. Many of the other developed western nations have such a policy and studies there show no real ill effects, but rather due largely to the monies saved by not having incarcerated their fellow citizens for this behavior, they are able to better fund treatment, training, and other support programs, thus lowering the numbers of persons needing help saving even more tax dollars. It’s true they still have the initial problem, but at least their approach doesn’t exacerbate it.
I think we might consider the broader issues and history connected to society’s view of race/minorities. For instance at one time the Irish and Catholics were seen as the lowest of the low. It was thought they were unable to either learn or change and would always be the dregs of society and criminals. (This was also true for many others including the Germans, Poles, Italians, etc.) Fortunately that view was wrong. But it only changed after the underlying socio-economics’ changed for this and the other demographics mentioned over time. It is also true for many other groups throughout world history. I would suggest that currently there are similar socio-economic factors at play in many areas where there are concentrations of minorities. And further that these same socio-economic factors not only contribute to these sub-cultures and associated behaviors, criminal or else wise, that develop in these groups and areas but in many ways lock them in. This is due in part to the overall rigidity of the current system, both in terms of its reflexive one size fits all nature and its resistance to social mobility. They may say anyone can be anything here in America but most of us know better. I’m not saying these persons have no choice, only that their choices are dictated to a large degree by the available options, which in the case of many minorities is very limited. I wonder if you might agree.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. December 20, 2011 5:39 am

    Thanks for the link! And also, thanks for posting! This is an important issue and as you see, the root of these issues are complicated and they are not mutually exclusive. This conversation can go on forever, but thanks again for making a start.

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