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Prison is one of the most important institutions in American life. About a quarter of all the world’s prisoners are behind bars in the United States, a total of roughly 2 million people. It costs about $60 billion a year to imprison them.


This vast prison-industrial complex has succeeded in reducing crime but is a blunt instrument. Prison stays often constitute a graduate seminar in crime, and at the very least, the system does a poor job preparing prisoners to return to the real world. Since 95 percent of prisoners will eventually be released, this is not a minor problem.


Prison tends to be harsh in small-minded ways (taking away weights and various TV programs) and lax in the important things. Needless to say, sexual violence and de facto rule by gangs — all too common — shouldn’t be tolerated in a civilized country. And when it comes to inculcating habits that might make prisoners decent citizens, prison should be more prescriptive, rather than less.


In an essay in the journal National Affairs, Eli Lehrer sets out an agenda for reform geared toward rehabilitation, and the conservative group Right on Crime advocates a similar program.


Most fundamentally, prisoners should be required to do what many of them have never done before, namely an honest day’s work. Fewer than a third of offenders hold full-time jobs at the time of their arrest, according to Lehrer. They won’t acquire a work ethic in prison. University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Stephanos Bibas notes that only about 8 percent of prisoners work in prison industries, and about 4 percent on prison farms.


Labor unions and businesses have long supported restrictions on productive work by prisoners for fear of cheap competition, but their self-interested concerns shouldn’t obstruct attempts to instill the most basic American norm in people desperately in need of it. Prisoners should be made to work, but be paid for it and rewarded if they are particularly diligent and skilled. As Bibas argues, some of the proceeds can go to restitution for victims, to paying for their own upkeep, and to support for their families.


Prison should align itself with other norms. Inmates with drug and alcohol addictions should be forced to get treatment. There should be maximum openness to faith-based programs. Prisoners should be encouraged to keep in contact with their families rather than cut off from them through what Bibas calls “cumbersome visiting policies and extortionate telephone rates.”


Once offenders get out, there’s a good chance that they are going back. Lehrer notes that about 40 percent of ex-prisoners are rearrested within three years. The goal should be to reduce recidivism as much as possible. Offenders shouldn’t be discharged directly from solitary confinement, or discharged without a photo ID. In the job market, they shouldn’t be denied occupational licenses when the job in question has nothing to do with their crime. They should, if their crime wasn’t too serious, eventually have it expunged from the records for most purposes.


Ex-inmates out on parole or on probation should be monitored more closely. As Lehrer writes, “Transition programs should increasingly involve random, unannounced home visits, subject ex-offenders to round-the-clock electronic monitoring, require them to take random drug tests, and offer them swift and certain punishment for slip-ups.”


Playing against type, hang-‘em-high Texas has been a model of prison reform and innovative re-entry programs. It has sent fewer people to prison, while crime has continued to decline in the state. It has funded more slots for treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, and increased the use of drug courts, creating alternatives to prison. It has strengthened supervision of probationers and parolees, by reducing caseloads for officers and fashioning a system of swift and certain sanctions for violations.


We have proved in the past several decades that we can lock a lot of people up. The challenge now is if we can do it more humanely and intelligently and, ultimately, create less work for the prison-industrial complex.


— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com


(c) 2013 by King Features Syndicate


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