August 14, 2013

What Does Our Prison Nation Say About Us?

Back in 2008, I wrote a brief post titled Christian Nation, Prison Nation. In it, I noted that the U.S. has less than 5% of the world's population and nearly 25% of the world's prison population. I described the roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated at the time as "an invisible society of dysfunction within our borders."

My main point in writing that post was to draw a contrast between the claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation and the harsh reality that we rank #1 worldwide in incarcerating our own people. I wrote:
I am intrigued that the people most likely to proclaim that the United States is a Christian nation also tend to be those most responsible for perpetuating our status as the world's leading prison nation. They tend to support mandatory minimums, prefer expanding vice crimes, and seem to care little for correcting social conditions which breed crime. Do they see incarcerating their neighbors as the Christian thing to do?
For reasons I'd rather not get into at the moment, I've been thinking a great deal lately about the damage done by our system of incarceration.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in 34 U.S. adults was under some form of correctional supervision in 2011 (see .pdf here). This works out to roughly 2.9% of the adult population. And this was actually the lowest incarceration rate we had seen since 2000! 2012 would bring an additional decline. And yet, the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.

I find it difficult to escape the conclusion that this is a massive failure that speaks volumes about our priorities. But what seems most disappointing of all is that we aren't having serious discussions about how to change this system (although there was recently some promising news about changing our mandatory minimums). Our politicians appear to be crippled by the fear that their opponents will paint them as weak on crime or that the campaign contributions they receive from the private prison industry might dry up. And many people who do not perceive themselves as directly affected by the system are quite content to ignore it. It seems obvious that what we are doing is not working.

Admittedly, there have been some innovate efforts to develop new programs to reduce the incarceration of non-violent offenders. Drug courts come to mind as one popular example. But these programs, most of which we created through federal grants, have suffered under the austerity measures adopted by our elected officials. And because many people are not even aware that such programs exist, it is difficult to lobby effectively for the support they require.

Obviously, any society is going to have some people who will require incarceration. Violent offenders are going to need to be locked up as a matter of public safety. There are certainly repeat violent offenders for whom rehabilitation is never going to happen. Such individuals will need to be separated from society. But throwing non-violent criminals into the same system has never made much sense. Doing so violates a basic sense of justice, but it also seems to undermine efforts toward rehabilitation. Many of these non-violent offenders can indeed be rehabilitated. It is just that we have not been terribly interested in funding the sort of rehabilitation programs they need.

The U.S. corrections system is an excellent reminder of why we need a combination of rational policies guided by evidence and a commitment to progress. We know the present system is not working, and yet we seem determined to avoid fixing it. We know at least some ways in which it could be improved, and yet, we refuse to pursue them. If this says something about the sort of people we are, it is not terribly positive.