From the Archives: Righting Crime, Conservative Criminal Justice as Common Sense

About Owen Jennings

Nine years ago, PRA published an article written by our founder Jean Hardisty, examining the conservative model of punishment that has dominated the criminal justice system. It examines both the philosophical debate about the nature of justice, and the scapegoating of minorities this conservative model has contributed to.

Since that article was published, the ‘on the ground’ reality in prisons has grown worse. The incarceration rate has increasingly dwarfed all other countries, ensuring that the prisons have become more crowded. A number of states, most notably California, have been struggling with both the logistical and budgetary challenges of full prisons. If the rate of incarceration is going to be slowed down, it will take serious sentencing reform. Unfortunately, ‘tough on crime’ promises still bring in the votes, and even if sentencing issues are addressed, we must question the role of the criminal justice system, and question its underlying motives and biases.

Contributing to the pressure of an overcrowded prison system, increased private sector involvement in the prison system has created perverse incentives and in some cases led to inhumane conditions. The Right-Wing has pushed for prison privatization, and in turn, private prison corporations have grown increasingly powerful. These corporations, unlike state governments, only stand to gain from harsher prison sentencing. In addition, as many have observed, one of the few mechanisms through which these corporations can reduce costs is through “employing fewer guards and other workers, and by paying them badly.” There is also some evidence showing “a heightened level of violence against prisoners in private institutions,” possibly due to fewer, lower paid, and less experienced staff. The ACLU also filed a lawsuit against a private Mississippi correctional facility, documenting appalling conditions and mistreatment of inmates, including regular fires in solitary confinement, sometimes lit by inmates to get the attention of guards, failing to intervene in and possibly encouraging fights, and in one case, finding an inmate dead after spraying excessive amounts of mace into his cell. While neglect of this nature certainly exists in the state run prison system as well, the incentives of private prison corporations only exacerbate the situation.

In order to tackle our soaring level of incarceration, we need to question what we expect of our correctional facilities. The answer is in the name. We need to push back against the tough on crime message, and increasingly lengthy sentences, and make our prisons ‘correctional.’ Prison overcrowding has become enough of a problem that sentences are being reduced as is, but that change is merely a stop-gap, without comprehensive policy ensuring inmates can integrate back into society, and make re-offending an unappealing option. In doing so, not only do shorter sentences work well, but have the potential to cut crime in the long term.

While recidivism rates are not necessarily directly comparable, in Sweden, where they have just closed four prisons due to a massive drop in prison admissions, their recidivism rate is by any measure lower than that of the US. To prevent recidivism, part of the solution has to be ensuring that ex-prisoners are employed, or at the very least employable, and focusing on eliminating the need for former convicts to resort to crime to make a living.

Simmering under the huge incarceration rate is the massive ethnic disparity in sentencing. According to one study, one in three African American men will go to prison at some point in their lives, and they receive sentences nearly 20 percent longer than white men, for similar crimes. As Hardisty’s article states, it is impossible to “not conclude that these policies, and those who defend them, are racially motivated.” Furthermore, this glaring inequality filters back into society, with ex-felons finding employment out of reach. In some states, the disenfranchisement of ex-felons can even determine electoral outcomes, as might have been the case in the recent elections in Virginia.

Underlying possible changes to the role of the criminal justice system, is the need to make reforms that tackle crime in the long term, through, as Hardisty puts it, “the creation of jobs, housing, economic opportunity, and universal health care that includes treatment for addictions.”

Political advantages of longer prison sentences aside, the continuously increasing incarceration rates are imposing enormous monetary costs on individual states. In many states, funding the prison system is becoming a substantial burden in its own right. Perhaps we can take this opportunity to reform the criminal justice system, and possibly go further to redirect “attention to the root causes of crime, such as poverty, abuse, addiction, and lack of opportunity, and by challenging the demonization and scapegoating of ‘criminals.’”

Owen Jennings was a Fall 2013--Spring 2014 intern for Political Research Associates