Monday, June 8, 2009

And throw away the key

So when it comes right down to it, Americans have decided that they don't like Gitmo, but they like having alleged terrorists and Al Quaeda and Taliban fighters in their local prisons even less.

Unless, as AP reported, they happen to live in Hardin, Montana, where the town built a new jail with the hope that they could rent the bed space out and make it an incarceration hotel. The jail, a medium security facility that the town fathers say can be easily upgraded to maximum, sits empty, the bonds issued to pay for it are in default. Taking in some prisoners would be a boon to the economy, and really, what's to worry. As one local said,
"I'm a lot more worried about some sex offender walking my streets than a guy that's a world-class terrorist. He's not going to escape, pop into the IGA (supermarket), grab a six-pack and go sit in the park."
So the city council voted, without dissent, to take all the prisoners from Guantanamo.

Or unless they live in Florence, Colorado, home of the only federal supermax prison, known as Alcatraz of the Rockies. According to Reuters, The good people of Florence aren't any more concerned than the folks in Hardin. And they know what it's like to have serious bad guys in their local prison. Terry Nichols is there. So is Ted Kaczynski. And 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef and Zacarias Moussaoui. Oh, the prison is almost full, but they can build an addition or transfer some of the current prisoners.

But as Dahlia Lithwick reminds us, the prisoners at Guantanamo, while perhaps the most attention-grabbing, are really the least of our prison problems. Our real prison problem: We lock up too many people. James Webb, Senator from Virginia, has gathered some of the data. Lithwick summarizes it this way:
The United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, houses nearly 25 percent of the world's prisoners. As Webb has explained it, "Either we're the most evil people on earth, or we're doing something wrong." We incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents, nearly five times the world average. At this point, approximately one in every 31 adults in the United States is in prison, jail, or on supervised release. Local, state, and federal spending on corrections now amounts to about $70 billion per year and has increased 40 percent over the past 20 years.
You know, that's descriptive, but it doesn't capture just why it's all a problem. Nor does this:
The Justice Department estimates that 16 percent of the adult inmates in American prisons—more than 350,000 of those incarcerated—suffer from mental illness; the percentage among juveniles is even higher. And 2007 Justice statistics showed that nearly 60 percent of the state prisoners serving time for a drug offense had no history of violence and four out of five drug arrests were for drug possession, not sales. Webb also reminds us that while drug use varies little by ethnic group in the United States, African-Americans—estimated at 14 percent of regular drug users—make up 56 percent of those in state prison for drug crimes. We know all of this. The question is how long we want to avoid dealing with it.
I mean, all of that is terrible. The data here show that our approach to crime is almost uniquely punitive, financially wasteful, racist in impact even if not in intent, and senseless. But so what? Is there really any reason we shouldn't lock up non-violent drug offenders?

In fact, there is. Someday we release them. And we've virtually assured that they will not be productive members of society once we do. They'll be unskilled, unemployable, angry. They'll have been trained to lash out at the slightest provocation, to take what they can when they can, to become more dangerous than when they went into prison. And we won't be reducing crime, anyway.

What's that last? Surely if you just lock everyone up forever, crime will go down? I suppose that's true in absolute terms. If you lock up everyone, there'll be nobody left on the outside to commit crimes or be victimized. But we won't do that. And here, from the National Law Journal, is the bottom line. Locking people up isn't the most effective way to reduce crime. Rather, treatment, rehabilitation, and a recognition that some things just can't be well-handled by the criminal justice system.

Look, the criminal courts, the justice system, work on the back end of the problem - after the crime. If you want to stop the crimes from occurring in the first place, you have to go about it differently. You have to look at prevention. You have to provide alternatives to crime. You have to provide education and jobs and hope. You have to change cultures.

They made a lot of fun of it, and it never really happened, but one idea that Bill Clinton had that was clearly right was midnight basketball.

No comments:

Post a Comment