My brother sent me a link to this CEPR study about the cost of incarceration a few weeks ago. After reading the entire thing, I was speechless.
The topic of the study seemed so familiar, yet the numbers were so much more stunning than I ever could have imagined. I scoured blogs to see if someone else had posted about it, yet I found only one article. Let me know if I’ve missed others.
The statistics are incredible: we now incarcerate 240% more people than we did in 1980; in 2008, one out of every 48 working-age men was in prison or jail; non-violent offenders make up over 60% of the prison and jail population; drug offenders now account for about one-fourth of all offenders behind bars.
Those are just some of the numbers that appear in the summary. If you want a real shock, have a look at the graph comparing us to other countries on page three, or the graph showing changes in our incarceration rate over time on page six. The study is such an incredible argument against strict prison sentences that it’s almost hard to believe the numbers are real.
I believe the numbers because I participate in the system that throws such an absurd number of people in cages. I see prosecutors make decade-or-more prison offers to nonviolent offenders. I see judges sentence people who lose at trial to sentences that far surpass the life expectancy of any human. Away from work, every time I’m exposed to the news, I hear people arguing that we need to create new crimes or impose harsher sentences.
Why do we think imprisonment works? The numbers certainly don’t say it does. My experience certainly doesn’t say it does.
Prison changes people, but not for the better. I have clients who got hooked on meth in prison. I have clients who entered prison as small-time criminals and left with the network necessary to become big-time criminals.
Many of my repeat-offender clients have decades of booking photos in their files. I see them getting more tattooed, more muscular, and angrier with each photo. I’ve flipped through far too many series of photos that start with a scared, confused kid and end with a photo of the kind of person most people think should belong in prison. We force people to turn into what we thought they were at the beginning, before we knew what they might have had the potential to become.
Does anyone truly believe that prison rehabilitates? The public discourse certainly isn’t about getting prisoners the educational and vocational training they need to reintegrate into society; it’s about shaming them Sheriff-Joe-style, making their lives miserable for the duration of their stay. When they’re finally released from the hell we created for them, we throw them back in after doing what we taught them to do. We shake our fingers at them for not playing nice.
People often throw around a quote from Albert Einstein about how insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s a good quote, and it’s especially apt here. Reading the study, I feel like we have to wake up sooner or later. How can we argue with those numbers? When will the insanity stop?
I worry because I see no end in sight. We will not change because we don’t have to change. I expect that we will sooner collapse than rethink our failed policies. As a country, we must be insane. That’s what worries me the most.