Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Incarceration Epidemic

John Hawkins, editor of Right Wing News ("one of the premier conservative blogs on the Internet", according to Right Wing News) recently posted an interesting reader-submitted question, and was thoughtful enough to answer it as well:
Question: The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world. By a wide margin.

What do you think are the reasons and what kind of solutions do you see to this? Some people might say deporting illegal aliens within our prisons, others might say legalizing drugs, and I just wanted to know your take.

Thanks! — opchromiterok

Answer: As Thomas Sowell is wont to say, “There are no solutions, there are only trade-offs.” So, I’m a little leery of accepting the idea that the incarceration rate is, in and of itself, a problem we have to solve. That’s especially the case because not so long ago, we had much more of a crime problem in this country and putting a lot of people in jail was one of the trade-offs to effectively dealing with that problem.
Fair enough. America's current inmate population—2.3 million—sounds rather high, but who am I to say they don't all deserve to be locked up? And our ratio of 743 prisoners per 100,000 people may be the highest in the world right now, but it's not like we've set an all-time record—in the late 1930s roughly 800 of every 100,000 people in the USSR were being worked to death in some remote Gulag. So at least we haven't reached that level.[1] As of 2009.

Anyway, back to Hawkins:
That being said, if we’re looking for ways to reduce the prison population, I would be opposed to legalizing drugs. The last thing we need at this point is the increased societal deterioration that would cause.
Later, after a paragraph suggesting we can reduce crime by making it impossible for "illegals" to get jobs,[2] he adds a thought that strikes me as not-entirely-unrelated to the one quoted above:
The other thing that creates a lot of crime, and a lot of people hate to hear this even though it’s true, is single motherhood. I’m not picking on anybody, I’m not letting men off the hook, and I’m not saying single mothers are bad parents. However, what I am saying, is that the statistics on single parenthood are horrific.
This is why I roll my eyes when conservatives say they're the ones with the logical approach to problem-solving. Hawkins believes drug offenders should be in jail, because when they roam free they contribute to societal deterioration. He also believes—and on this one the stats appear to be on his side [3]—that children without a father around are more likely to commit crimes. But how many of those kids grow up without a father because their father's in jail? A lot, it turns out:
[Harvard sociologist Bruce] Western and [University of Washington sociologist Becky] Pettit note that 54 percent of inmates are parents with minor children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. One in every 28 children has a parent incarcerated, up from 1 in 125 just 25 years ago. Two-thirds of these children’s parents were incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
I'm not saying that explains everything, or even that it explains anything. There are any number of reasons a child might be raised by a single mother, but you can't talk about how our prisons are filled with the products of broken families without acknowledging the role prisons play in breaking families apart. (The least surprising statistic I encountered as I wrote this article is that people with family members who've spent time in prison are more likely to wind up there themselves.) That's what's so tricky about vicious cycles—it's just about impossible to distinguish between cause and effect.[4]

In other words, I'm not too impressed with Hawkins' answers to the original question, so I'll offer my own. Why is our incarceration rate the highest in the world? That's easy. Because we have so many damn criminals. How do we fix the problem? That's easy, too. All we have to do to reduce the number of criminals is change our definition of "criminal". And all we have to do to reduce the prison population is let a bunch of people out of prison.

Done. Problem solved.

Oh, and we'll have to add a clause to the First Amendment, right after the part that says "Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech":
…except in the case of (a) blowhard politicians who voted for mandatory minimum sentences, or restrictions on judicial discretion, or some other bullshit law just so they can go around claiming to be "tough on crime", and (b) blowhard politicians who wouldn't hesitate for even half a second before calling their opponents "soft on crime" if they don't vote for the aforementioned bullshit. They can still vote however they want, but Congress can abridge the hell out of their ability to talk about it.
Yeah, maybe that's unrealistic, but I don't know what else to do. So many of our most serious problems—crime, violence, broken families, overcrowded prisons, drug addiction, out-of-control spending, Nancy Grace, etc.—are exacerbated, if not created, by the fact that politicians are virtually guaranteed to gain votes by claiming to have done or promising to do any of the following:
  • Put more criminals in jail.
  • Keep criminals in jail longer.
  • Create new ways for people to become criminals (thereby combating some perceived threat).[5]
In conclusion…I don't really have a proper conclusion, so how about a bunch of links instead? Over the last few months the aptly-named has produced a small mountain of content about prisons and other criminal justice issues. One is quoted above; here are a few more that stood out:

1. The comparison isn't really as close as it seems. For one thing, the Gulag numbers are misleadingly low because the prisoners were constantly dying from exhaustion or malnutrition or being shot for no good reason. And I'm pretty sure we've never forced our prisoners to work long hours in uranium mines without bothering to protect them from exposure to deadly radiation, so that's another point for us. U-S-A! U-S-A!
2. Have we learned nothing from Les Misérables?
3. I realize the stats have been taken from an Ann Coulter book, and, honestly, I don't have the energy to deal with that. It seems like the numbers are probably accurate, if not the analysis, but I couldn't find an assessment of her book that's not clearly biased in one way or another. As a half-assed compromise, here's the least negative thing said about the book in the inevitable Media Matters critique: "Media Matters has examined a copy of Ann Coulter's new book."
4. In Soviet Russia, causes and effects within endless feedback loop are reversed. It's not any less difficult to tell which are which, though.
5. I wrote this line—and most of the rest of this article—before the Casey Anthony verdict, but the ensuing "Caylee's Law" nonsense is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind.


  1. I've followed this for 20 years, and it's been a disaster-in-the-making for more then 30.

    It's one of the most vicious of vicious cycles.

    Our jails and prisons are filled to the brim with non-violent drug offenders serving mandatory sentences instituted during the early days of the War On Drugs. When, starting a few years into the mandatory-minimums craze, overcrowding necessitated reducing prison populations, dangerous people, who had been sentenced the old fashioned way and thus could be released, WERE being released left and right to make room for drug offenders. Many of these dangerous people, like Richard Allen Davis in California and Willie Horton in Massachusetts, committed further horrors after release, and became infamous. The public response is always the wrong one, though--"get tougher." Davis's kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas made her idiot father Marc a celebrity as the spokesman for still another mandatory minimum scheme--three-strikes-and-you're-out. After a few years of California using the law to lock up, for life, an incredible number of people for crimes of absolutely no consequence, Klaas denounced the law, but by then, it was too late. The press had already moved on, and much of the rest of the country had followed California over the same cliff.

    Prison overcrowding has been a serious problem for decades--practically every state has, at some point, been under court order to either reduce their populations or expand their prison capacity--and the big push to privatize prisons, starting in the '80s, has led to further perverse contributors to the cycle--in California, one of the most powerful lobbies is the prison-workers union, and they actively combat any effort to reduce the number of people in the clink.

    Our prisons, meanwhile are what Eddie Bunker accurately dubbed "monster machines." Practically any effort at rehabilitation has been abandoned in favor of "get tough"-ism. People go in who are nonviolent offenders and don't really belong there in the first place, then reemerge, years later, as hardened criminals--recidivism is terrible.

    No one cares.

  2. All that is easily solved by Larry Niven's method. Then lots of people will care.