Friday, February 29, 2008

Millions incarcerated. But do they all need to be?

So it's here.

The day when 1%, 1 out of a hundred of the U.S. adult population is incarcerated.

NEW YORK (AP) -- For the first time in history, more than one in every 100 American adults is in jail or prison, according to a new report.

The report, released Thursday by the Pew Center on the States, said the 50 states spent more than $49 billion on corrections last year, up from less than $11 billion 20 years earlier. The rate of increase for prison costs was six times greater than for higher education spending, the report said.

Using updated state-by-state data, the report said 2,319,258 adults were held in U.S. prisons or jails at the start of 2008 -- one out of every 99.1 adults, and more than any other country in the world....

"For some groups, the incarceration numbers are especially startling," the report said. "While one in 30 men between the ages of 20 and 34 is behind bars, for black males in that age group the figure is one in nine."

The nationwide figures, as of January 1, include 1,596,127 people in state and federal prisons and 723,131 in local jails -- a total 2,319,258 out of almost 230 million American adults.

There are of course some people for whom there is no other option than to keep them in prison-- incorrigible, violent criminals. But what we've done in seeking to always get tougher and tougher on crime is create a system which threatens to collapse under its own weight.

To cite one example, using the statistics cited in the report, it costs $21,000 per inmate to house them, including security, food clothing and medical care. Those costs fall on the rest of the population to pay, and together with years of tax cuts and otherwise tight state budgets it is quickly becoming far too burdensome for many states to pay.

The standard response from many staunch conservatives when you cite prison costs is to 'make them pay.' They want to create more work crews so the inmates can 'pay' for their stay. Of course this is ridiculous. I'm not against putting inmates to work, but when organized into work crews it takes additional security, as well as the costs of transportation, and if anyone really thinks that the value of the work they do picking up litter on the side of the road is valuable enough to offset these higher costs they are really out of touch with reality. Work crews are for the benefit of the inmates who we want to incentivize to stay out of prison in the future, and of society in general (or to satisfy those who want to make sure prison isn't a 'walk in the park'). But financially they only add to the bill. Imagine how much your employer would be in the hole if they had to post a crew of licensed and trained guards to watch you do menial and simple tasks while providing secure transportation to and from your work site every work day, even if they didn't have to pay you.

The second response from staunch conservatives is that limiting appeals and hastening the death penalty would reduce the prison population. This also fails to recognize numerical reality. I remember reading a few years ago that if you took every person on death row at that time in the country and executed them immediately, the prison population would be back where it was in two weeks. I don't know if that statistic is still true, but I'm sure it is not too far different from that. Even if we ignore the flaws in a death penalty system in which over a hundred people who had been on death row have by now been exonerated, the numbers are so small that arguing over them in the context of the prison population is like waiting until a flood goes through your house and then arguing over whether turning the sink off will do anything about the flood. Just as a matter of scale, it won't.

There are three questions we can ask here. The first is how we got into this situation, The second is whether locking this many people up is an effective way to fight crime and worth what it is costing us,and the third is what we can do instead of incarcerating people.

The answer to the first question is that it is a confluence of many factors. The most obvious is that during the 1990's we spent a lot of money to build more prisons. More prisons so that we could lock up more inmates for a longer time, and then we passed legislation like mandatory decades long prison sentences for selling drugs and three strikes laws to help stock the new prisons and make sure that they all became just as full as the old ones. Getting tough on drugs has really made a difference in the prison population, and even today half of all crimes are drug crimes-- and many ordinary addicts (and even most sellers got there by being addicts) spend a lot of time in prison, and ironically don't get any help with breaking their addiction (so as soon as they are out they are able to renew it-- and maybe get back to prison.)

But that is not the only explanation. It is also true that in the 1970's and 1980's, we shut down many of the mental institutions. This came about by an unlikely alliance of liberals and conservatives. The liberals felt that locking someone up in one indefinitely was a moral dilemma-- even more so given the expose of abuses that had occurred in some mental institutions, and painted in the worst possible light by movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The conservatives felt that the mental institutions were expensive and with a typical Social Darwinist attitude felt that the best therapy was to let the mentally ill or deficient survive in the real world and compete against everyone else on equal footing. The result has in fact been a tragic miscalculation by both sides. The prison system is where the highest concentration of mentally ill individuals end up, and as we see their conditions of confinement are much worse than they ever were in the old mental hospitals. Furthermore, rather than learning to survive in the real world, many, perhaps most of them have proven that they are not suited for life on the outside and have gone to a place where they require much more security and supervision than where they were. And to put the cherry on top, the only chance that they might improve is through treatment, but the budget for that is cut by legislatures as they try to figure out ways of paying for more and better prisons.

The answer to the second question is to note that while crime did in fact go down during the 1990's (the period of new prison construction), it is much lower still in industrialized countries that don't lock so many people up. So at best the idea that it prevents crime is limited to the obvious fact that while a person is locked up they aren't on the outside committing a crime. But it doesn't go beyond that, and then we have to ask whether it is legitimate to spend thousands of dollars per year just to make sure someone doesn't steal any more pizza (the now infamous crime that earned a hapless prisoner in California the first 'three strikes and you're out' life sentence.)

The answer to the third sentence is that there are better ways of dealing with some criminals-- especially non-violent offenders, primarily drug offenders. According to the article, Texas and Kansas are leaders in looking for more efficient ways to treat criminals without locking them all up. Often various combinations of fines (which add money to the system rather than subtracting from it), probation and other punishments are more appropriate than prison or jail time. This is a good start. But we also need to combat recidivism by giving prisoners help with reforming their lives after they leave prison. Crime is always available as a career path, so we have to make sure that there are other career paths available to them. I once wrote a post entitled, "The prison which follows prison" in which I pointed out that no matter how much people like to run down rehabilitation programs, we have to keep trying because it is certain that virtually everyone in prison-- other than the very few who will stay there until they die-- will sooner or later be back out among us. We certainly should do everything we can to make sure that rehab programs are as efficient and as successful as possible, but given the cost of failure, not trying is not an option (though ironically, programs designed to provide education and job training to prisoners are invariably among the first to face cuts from misguided state legislators who are focused on that year's budget and willing to shunt aside the costs associated with their decisions-- both the economic and human costs-- to future years, and future legislators.) As I wrote in my post on prisons linked to above,

Now, I'm not going to stupidly sit here and say that if we funded more of these things, you wouldn't still have recidivism. Some people are habitual criminals and you could hand them a million dollars in cash and make them the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, and the next day they would still be out running a con, knocking over a liquor store or beating someone up or raping or killing someone.

People like that need to be in prison, and there is little anyone can do to change that. But I am saying that regardless of the success rate (or failure rate) of rehabilitation programs, we as a society have an obligation to TRY. Because except for lifers or people on death row, the rest of the prison population will sooner or later be out among the rest of us, either rehabilitated or not.

We also should consider re-establishing (and/or expanding where they still exist) state mental hospitals. That way people who need treatment rather than incarceration will be able to get it (and it goes without saying that a prison atmosphere, with all the attendant sources of added stress and danger is probably not the ideal atmosphere to recover from a mental illness). A great deal more is known about mental illness and the psychology and biochemistry of the brain than was known in the past, so it would be much more difficult for someone to 'fake' their way into a mental institution in order to avoid prison. In any case though, to not invest in mental health care because we are worried about someone who doesn't need it 'gaming' the system is like not building a building because you are worried there might be termites someday. The way to handle it is to prosecute fraud aggressively when it is found, but not deny the benefits of treatment to the hundreds of thousands who need it because you are worried about a few 'McMurphees' (to also refer to the afformentioned movie.)

We also have to do a much better job of integrating prisoners back into society after they leave prison. There are far fewer halfway houses now than there were, and as I wrote in the previous prison post linked to above,

However, in some cases, we seem to be going beyond the pale in meting out punishment AFTER the punishment that the legal system decreed has been paid. In other cases, we are, simply by the mechanisms we put in place in society, setting them up to fail and return to crime (a career choice which is, after all, always available if no other options are).

For example, we say that convicted felons have the right to seek employment. However, we have for years cut the budgets for prison programs that seek to educate inmates about a trade (I have first hand knowledge of several educational institutions that suspended or ended their prison programs because of state or Federal budget cuts). We have also cut funding for job placement programs and halfway houses for prisoners. So, not surprisingly, when people who get out of a long term in prison with nothing to show on their resume other than a long stint in prison, have trouble getting a job, they often find that the easiest, and perhaps the only, way to earn a living wage, is through returning to a life of crime.

Another problem is that many people frankly expect and even want felons to fail. That is part of their dogma. As I blogged (ironically defending a campaign worker for conservative Republican Fred Thompson),

First and foremost, it's a matter of time. I wrote a post once, called "the prison that follows prison" that dealt with how hard it is for a convicted felon in America to become a productive member of society, or for that matter to be anything other than a convicted felon in the eyes of most people. For that matter, unless he's had his rights restored, Philip Martin would not be allowed to vote in most states. But look, his last conviction was TWENTY-FOUR years ago! TWENTY-FOUR bloody years ago! Do we EVER forgive anybody, or let them move ahead with their lives? The man has kept out of trouble for nearly a quarter of a century, and some people want to haul up what he did in 1979 or 1983. Guess what? Besides it being a long time ago, he was also a lot younger then. Sometimes younger people do foolish things, and then they learn from them. All the evidence is that Philip Martin did learn from his mistakes.

The attitude that prevailed towards Philip Martin prevails in the eyes of many if someone has ever been convicted, of anything (for the record he had two drug convictions that are decades old.)

It is understandable that many people would prefer to hire someone who is not a convicted felon. However, it seems as though our entire societal structure, between our indifference to the difficulties faced by those who genuinely want to make a living within the law and without committing any crimes, and our active hostility to those who may have once upon a time (even decades in the past) made a mistake, almost seem to be telling felons that they are always felons, and cannot ever fully repent.

A system which neither forgives nor forgets, and continues to punish people forever no matter how hard they try to change.

It's a good thing that God doesn't use the same standard of justice.


Anonymous said...

The Pew Center on the States lied by omission in this report. There is not one word in it about the million mentally ill people who have been incarcerated over and over since the psychiatrists encouraged the politicians to turn them out of the asylums to fend for themselves. According to U.S. Department of Justice in late 2006, an average of 55% of all prisoners in the U.S. are mentally ill. It is pathetic that the report has been published uncritically all over the world. After reading many articles parroting the study, from the Congo to Malaysia, to Prava to the UK, I am so glad to run across yours, which is the only one that points out that the run-up in the prison population in the U.S. is caused by the criminalization of the mentally ill in the U.S. Now we are right back where we were in 1890, before the mental asylums were established as a humanitarian alternative to keeping the mentally ill in jail. Today the Twin Towers Jail in Los Angeles is the largest mental institution in the world. A really creepy thing is that their mentally ill prisoners wear yellow clothing to set them apart, and have the letter "M" on their IDs. Shades of the Holocaust. Maybe even that is not good enough, maybe they should be branded on the forehead, as has been done in the past. Funny the Pew thing did not mention the true LA situation.
It's hard to tell for sure, but it seems as if this report was published to discredit Candidate Senator Obama, as it blames the prison population explosion on Black males, making it look like they are not only despicable, recidivist, lawbreakers, but that they are costing billion upon billions of dollars in tax money. Perhaps Pew is not as liberal as it claims?
Again, thank you for enlightening your readers on the true cause of the increase of the prison population in the U.S. Jean Di Pietro, NAMI DC, National Alliance on Mental Illness, District of Columbia

Eli Blake said...

That is tragic that no one is discussing this problem. My father was a psychiatrist (and often had to go out at 3 A.M. to help someone) and I've known people personally who suffered from mental illness. Sending them to prison is in effect telling them that we (collectively, as a society) don't care what happens to them and we just want them away from where we have to deal with them. Tragically, society has gotten that way.

As far as the incarceration rate of black males, I do not believe that it is because black males are particularly more disposed to crime, it is because we have laws, many of which date back decades, which help create the situation. In one recently well-publicized example, the penalty for crack cocaine in virtually every jurisdiction is far more stiff than the penalty for powdered cocaine. Both are cocaine, and both can be lethal in case of an overdose, but given that crack is much more likely to be used by blacks relative to the powdered form while upper middle class whites tend to use the powder, the differential in penalty is a reflection, whether by design or by predictable consequence, of who the legislators who write the laws would prefer to see in or out of prison.

In any other country, if more than 10% of the young men of any major ethnic group were in prison, it would be considered political repression.

Zach said...

Great post, but I have to disagree with you on one point, and to point out something that you missed.

First, work crews. I think that the work crews do save or make the state money. The cost of guarding and transporting the prisoners is still, in most states, lower than the cost of paying someone else to do the work. Between unions and increasing minimum wages, we are paying prisoners like 5 cents an hour to do the work that we pay other people $15 or more an hour to do. Two things, though. First, I think that for this to work out in the budget, that money needs to be transferred (at the rate it would be paid to the outside) back to the prisons from the Highway Department, or the Parks Division, or whoever. Second, even if it is profitable, it is not profitable enough to make a serious dent in the cost of our prison system.

The second point that I think you missed is more important. Prisons and our prison system are actually increasing dangerous crime on the streets in some places. This is becasue people who go in as criminals come out as gang members. The realities of prison life force them to join gangs. Which used to not be a problem. But as there becomes more activity by street gangs on the inside and prison gangs on the outside, this is a real problem. One example of each. In California, the Latin prison gangs have spread to the streets. Prisoners being released are affiliating not with street gangs, but with the same gangs they were in in prison.

In Chicago, many people locked up for drug and other minor offenses are incarcarated in Cook County jail, rather than a prison, because there isn't room for them in State Penitentiaries. The problem is that in a jail designed to hold people shor term, there aren't prison gangs. Instead, the same gangs that run the streets run the prison.

Rather than a place for punishment and rehabilitation, prisons have become a prime recruiting ground for criminal organizations.

Bottom line of all of this, I think we both agree, is that our Prison System is in dire need of some serious changes.

Anonymous said...

It is a very alarming report! A population not identified are our veterans. About 10-14% are veterans. More and more will become incarcerated as they return home with PTSD, TBI, MH as they may cope by alcohol, drugs, domestic abuse, etc. All of which will have an economic and societal impact. Part of this flood will be the returning more waiver recruits that will now have a know-how of guerilla warfare, explosives, etc. here are more diversion programs needed like the Buffalo Veterans Court to offset the usual trigger of locking people down. The LA county jail was referenced and they have a wing full of veterans. I speak from a past subjective, advocacy, and St. Dismas stance. We must get up off on apathies!

Eli Blake said...

Good points about veterans.

We've ignored treatment for all kinds of mental problems, including PTSD and other problems which disproportionately affect veterans. Somehow we expect that people who return from an environment in which they are in daily danger of being killed on a daily basis, may have to kill other people, and see all kinds of horrible things that most of us can't even imagine are, once they return home, supposed to just start working at a job, be model citizens and never have a problem. Some in fact do, but most need some level of assistance. It is tragic that instead of looking for ways to help all veterans, our government has spent a great deal of time and effort just making sure that even those who do come back with readily recognizable disabilities don't qualify for payment.

Combining, as you point out, the knowledge of guerilla warfare that veterans bring with them with the criminal element that is present in prison creates a particularly potent and disturbing combination-- just think for a moment about Timothy McVeigh. It is true that he met up with members of the Michigan militia outside of prison, but there are certainly prison gangs which would prize such knowlege and put it to disquieting use. And McVeigh is an example of what the price to society can be if veterans with a knowledge of warfare come back without receiving the proper treatment and attention (though I of course recognize that he is a single isolated case and don't expect that even the most disturbed veterans if left untreated would consider using their knowledge in the way that he did. But then it only takes one.)