Oliver Willis has his say about what jail should be about. In a word, says Willis, it's about punishment. I think this position, while emotionally satisfying, is wrong on several levels.
First, I'll stipulate that certain crimes and certain criminals deserve harsh punishment and nothing more. It is for this reason that I do not oppose the death penalty. I have problems with how cavalierly we issue it, with the restrictions on appeals, and with the overly skewed number of non-whites on death row, but at the end of the day I believe that death is sometimes the only appropriate response.
Similarly, I have no qualms with long sentences for violent crimes. Nor do I quibble with making violent and hardened criminals serve the full extent of their sentences, or with throwing away the key on habitual reoffenders. Parole is a privilege, and it belongs to those who earn it.
Finally, I'd be perfectly happy if we got serious about white collar criminals. You know, the kind who merely wipe out people's life savings instead of bashing them over the head. If someday Jeff Skilling does a ten-spot in Huntsville, you won't see me crying for him.
The problem is that there are plenty of people in jail who don't fit any of the descriptions above. Most people who enter jail are going to get out before they're eligible for Social Security. It seems to me that it's in society's best interests to do something to convince these people that they're better off joining the ranks of the productive citizens rather than go back to the old habits that got them sent up the river in the first place. Lots of prisoners are illiterate. Libraries and literacy programs help some of them overcome that, which in turn makes them more likely to find a job when they get out. Isn't this a win-win situation?
Well, maybe we should just lock 'em all up and throw away the key. One strike and you're out. I hope you're prepared to pay for that. States are already running out of money for prisons. Would you like to drain resources from education, road-building or law enforcement to keep the prison building industry humming? Don't forget that most people start their criminal careers when they're young. Locking them up for good means not only are we removing a potential contributor to the economy just as he's entering his wage-earning years, it means we have to pay for that person's upkeep for decades. That just doesn't sound like good economic policy to me.
If it costs so much to feed and shelter them, why not just kill them all? Well, that's what they used to do in Afghanistan. Do we really wanna go there?
I believe that criminal justice has three goals: Deterrence, rehabilitation, and punishment. Jail should be bad enough that people don't want to risk going there, but not so bad that it regularly spits out worse people than it takes in. In an ideal world, the justice system would take those who are merely young and foolish and show them the error of their ways, thus not only setting them back on the right path but providing a good example for those around them. (Yeah, I know, but I'm idealizing here. Work with me.) Rehabilitation and deterrence work hand in hand. By deterring crime and reforming criminals, we can spend less on jails and more on things that actually enhance our lives. And let's not overlook the idea that some crimes really don't deserve prison sentences. Think "mandatory sentencing for drug offenses" here. If we stop locking up pot smokers for thirty years, there will be plenty of room in prison for those who really need it.
The funny thing is that throwing more people in jail for longer periods does not necessarily correlate with a drop in crime. I cite the Justice Policy Institute report on the 1990's, which says
The connection between incarceration and crime rates appears as elusive at the end of the 90s as it has been in previous decades. There is little correlation between states with skyrocketing incarceration rates and the recent crime declines witnessed across the country. The "New York Miracle" - the sharp drops in homicides and violent crime rates experienced by America's largest city between 1992 and 1997 - have occurred at the same time that New York State had the second slowest growing prison system in the country, and at a time when the city's jail system downsized.
New York's modest prison growth provides a solid contrast to the explosive use of incarceration in other states. During the same 1992-97 period, California's prison population grew by 30%, or about 270 inmates per week, compared to New York State's more modest 30 inmates a week. Between 1992 and 1997, New York State's violent crime rate fell by 38.6%, and its murder rate by 54.5%. By contrast, California's violent crime rate fell by a more modest 23%, and its murder rate fell by 28%. Put another way, New York experienced a percentage drop in homicides which was half again as great as the percentage drop in California's homicide rate, despite the fact that California added 9 times as many inmates per week to its prisons as New York.
It was an appeals court judge in New York who pointed out in a magazine article that a penniless mother who steals powdered milk for her baby and a thug who steals powdered milk to cut heroin have committed the same crime. Does anyone really want to see them given identical, "mandatory" prison sentences?