Thursday, June 16, 2011

I Don't Get Prisons; or, Rehabilitating our Penal System

The topic of prisons, punishment, determent, and rehabilitation has been getting to me lately, and an NPR broadcast about Angola Prison really drove me to try to put my thoughts into words. The way I look at it, our criminal justice system looks sort of like this:

Crimes are actions that we as a society have deemed illegal because they cause harm to other people. Murder, burglary, and libel are pretty obvious examples of crimes that do harm to others. Self-inflicted crimes (most notably, drug use) have secondary negative effects on society. 

As a society, we decide that people who commit crimes should suffer some consequences with the idea of reducing the number of criminal acts. For most crimes, the sentence is prison time. As I see it, the justification for prison time serves three purposes:
  • Determent: If people know they are going to jail if they do illegal things, they will be less likely to do them.
  • Rehabilitation: Criminals serving time may become rehabilitated and not want to commit crimes again either by a change of morals/outlook or by the fear of being imprisoned again).
  • Punishment: Society demands that people who hurt them are in turn hurt (the old Babylonian "eye for an eye" morals). 
It seems pretty clear that determent doesn't work for a large portion of society. People who have been driven to commit crimes (either by extenuating circumstances or by a weak moral compass) usually seem to just try harder to not get caught. People who wouldn't commit crimes in the first place because of a strong moral compass (e.g. me) are less likely to do the illegal activities even if they were not illegal*.

* I'm well aware there is a huge amount of sociological and psychological research in the fields of motivation and morality. 

Punishment seems to make sense, except when you think about the longer sentences. According to Louisiana's data on Angola, 73% of the inmates in 2010 were serving life sentences (there is some math at play here; lifers only leave when they die, whereas other inmates can finish their term or be paroled). What's the point of locking someone up for their entire life? Seems like a waste of a life.

Rehabilitation seems like the most valuable thing we can attempt with our criminals*. My wife once worked in a batterers intervention group, where she worked with convicted domestic abusers. After a once-a-week-for-40-weeks program, the recidivism rate was far lower than those who went to jail (granted, it is likely that this data is somewhat self-selecting; the judge could sentence intervention instead of jail time, and likely chose the more repentant men for intervention). I bet you many more criminals could be rehabilitated rather than just thrown in a snake pit with other criminals.

* I fully acknowledge that some people cannot be rehabilitated, and that life in prison or capital punishment are the only reasonable options for society.

I don't know where I'm going with this, other than to say it seems clear that our penal system could really use some work. Prison inmates are a drag on society, producing nothing, consuming goods and services, while (generally) falling behind in job skills. It's the 21st century; can't we do this better?
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