Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Bibas: On Mass Incarceration

Stephanos Bibas has a piece at National Review with the provocative title, "The Truth About Mass Incarceration." Provocative, because it is difficult to conclude that there is much of a debate re mass incarceration in the United States. Nonetheless, Bibas speaks. The piece is quite long, rambling. Once suspects there is constant overreach along the way. But, in our view, it is a piece worth considering:

After referencing the standard statistics on the booming prison population (at least that point isn't in debate!) Bibas argues "Liberals ... the NAACP ... Obama ... liberal criminologists ... lawyers ... Michelle Alexander" blame these trends on "racism and the 'War on Drugs,' in particular long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes." Bibas, however, says this "well-known narrative" doesn't "fit the facts."
Prison growth has been driven mainly by violent and property crime, not drugs. As Fordham law professor John Pfaff has shown, more than half of the extra prisoners added in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s were imprisoned for violent crimes; two thirds were in for violent or property crimes. Only about a fifth of prison inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses, and only a sliver of those are in for marijuana. Moreover, many of these incarcerated drug offenders have prior convictions for violent crimes. The median state prisoner serves roughly two years before being released; three quarters are released within roughly six years. For the last several decades, arrest rates as a percentage of crimes — including drug arrests — have been basically flat, as have sentence lengths. 
What has driven prison populations? Bibas writes:

... arrests are far more likely to result in felony charges: Twenty years ago, only three eighths of arrests resulted in felony charges, but today more than half do. Over the past few decades, prosecutors have grown tougher and more consistent ... Most prisoners are guilty of violent or property crimes that no orderly society can excuse. Even those convicted of drug crimes have often been implicated in violence, as well as promoting addiction that destroys neighborhoods and lives.
This is all pretty tough to buy, for a variety of reasons, but what Bibas says next is quite intriguing. He notes that, in colonial America crimes were punished "swiftly but temporarily." Along the way, "few convicts were hanged, exiled, or mutilated." Most, instead, "paid a fine, were shamed in the town square, sat in the stocks or pillory, or were whipped" but all of these punishments were "brief." This approach was "in keeping with the colonists’ Christian faith in forgiveness, and it meant there was no permanent underclass of ex-cons." Preachers:
...stressed that any of us could have committed such crimes, and we all needed to steel ourselves against the same temptations; the message was “There but for the grace of God go I.” The point of criminal punishment was to condemn the wrong, humble the wrongdoer, induce him to make amends and learn his lesson, and then welcome him back as a brother in Christ. 
Then, two centuries ago, there was a shift "from shaming and corporal punishments to imprisonment." This, in turn, "made punishment an enduring status." 
Reformers had hoped that isolation and Bible reading in prison would induce repentance and law-abiding work habits, but it didn’t turn out that way. Now we warehouse large numbers of criminals, in idleness and at great expense. By exiling them, often far away, prison severs them from their responsibilities to their families and communities, not to mention separating them from opportunities for gainful work. This approach is hugely disruptive ,,,
Bibas says, "there is evidence that prison turns people into career criminals." He notes that it "cuts prisoners off from families, friends, and neighbors, who give them reasons to follow the law." On the economic front, prisoner "lose their jobs on the outside" and their convictions "disqualify" them from "certain jobs, housing, student loans, and voting." Most powerfully, Bibas says prisons are "breeding grounds for crime" because
... instead of having to learn vocational skills, [prisoners] have too much free time to hone criminal skills and connections. And instead of removing wrongdoers from criminogenic environments, prison clusters together neophytes and experienced recidivists, breeding gangs, criminal networks, and more crime. 
Prison, as it turns out, isn't even much of a deterrent, because deterrence assumes a degree of "foresight and self-discipline" and criminals often are "impulsively satisfying their immediate desires."

The Solution(s)?

Bibas recommends that, to deter, we need "more through swift, certain sanctions that pay back victims while knitting wrongdoers back into the social fabric," He suggests states should give more attention to "expanded inpatient and outpatient drug treatment as well as drug courts" and diverting "more minor offenders out of prison," keeping "juveniles out of state prison," and setting up "cheaper diversion beds for inmates who do not need to be in regular prison." He then says:
Most of all, the government needs to work on reweaving the frayed but still extant fabric of criminals’ families and communities. Both excessive crime and excessive punishment rend communal bonds, further atomizing society ... The cornerstone of a conservative criminal-justice agenda should be strengthening families. More than half of America’s inmates have minor children, more than 1.7 million in all; most of these inmates were living with minor children right before their arrest or incarceration. Inmates should meet with their families often. They should be incarcerated as close to home as possible, not deliberately sent to the other end of the state. Visitation rules and hours need to be eased, and extortionate collect-call telephone rates should come down to actual cost.
The piece ends by recommending that prison-based programs "encourage wrongdoers to meet with their victims if the victims are willing, to listen to their stories, apologize, and seek their forgiveness." It argues "work" should be a component of punishment because "it is madness that prisoners spend years in state-sponsored idleness punctuated by sporadic brutality." We should, instead, repeal Depression-era protectionist laws and "require payment of prevailing-wage rates to prisoners" and require that "able-bodied prisoners should have to complete their educations and work, learning good work habits as well as marketable skills" (if not enlist in the military). See full piece here

No comments:

blogger templates | Make Money Online