Prisons and Punishment in America

I’m not sure why this particular issue has begun to obsess me over the past few months. I think it’s connected to my wastage of talent that pervades the world and the crazy belief that poverty teaches us lessons.

Punishment is also an American obsession. In Five Myths about prison growth John Pfaff offers a number of statistics and reports that he says prove that long sentences, low-level drug offenders, and technical parole violations have no effect on prison growth. Those are the first three myths he deals with. The fifth myth is that incarceration growth has not decreased crime. Go to Slate and read through his article and the links if you’re interested.

I’m really interested in his fourth myth, though, because I think it goes to the heart of the debate. Pfaff writes:

Myth No. 4: In the past three decades, we’ve newly diverged from the rest of the world on punishment. Given that our incarceration rate before the mid-1970s is one-seventh the rate of today, it is easy to think that we’re suddenly acting like outliers. But the fact is that American views on punishment have been harsher than Europe’s since the birth of this country (although politicians may overestimate the extent to which they must be tough on crime to win elections). More strikingly, if we look back historically at the lockup rate for mental hospitals as well as prisons, we have only just now returned to the combined rates for both kinds of incarceration in the 1950s. In other words, we’re not locking up a greater percentage of the population so much as locking people up in prisons rather than mental hospitals. Viewed through this lens, what seems remarkable is not the current era of mass incarceration but the 1960s and ‘70s, during which we emptied the hospitals without filling the prisons. Any reform agenda that does not acknowledge the ingrained nature of our punitive impulses will surely fail.

He basically concedes the argument that America is a more punitive culture than Europe or anywhere else in the world. From that point of view he concludes that nothing can be done to improve the situation without running up against the American penchant for revenge and punishment.

On the other side of the issue there is an article from last year by Bruce Western on Reentry after prison. Western argues that there are three fallacies that have led to mass imprisonment in America.

  1. An us-versus-them mentality. “For tough-on-crime advocates, the innocent majority is victimized by a class of predatory criminals, and the prison works to separate us from them. The truth is that the criminals live among us as our young fathers, brothers, and sons. Drug use, fighting, theft, and disorderly conduct are behavioral staples of male youth.”
  2. The fallacy of personal defect. “Tough-on-crime politics disdains the criminology of root causes and traces crime not to poverty and unemployment but to the moral failures of individuals. Refusing to resist temptation or defer gratification, the offender lacks empathy and affect, lacks human connection, and is thus less human than the rest of us. The diagnosis of defective character points to immutable criminality, stoking cynicism for rehabilitative efforts and justifying the mission of semi-permanent incapacitation. The folk theory of immutable criminality permits the veiled association of crime with race in political talk.”
  3. And the free-market uber alles. “The free market fallacy sees the welfare state as pampering the criminal class and building expectations of something for nothing. Anti-poverty programs were trimmed throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and poor young men largely fell through the diminished safety net that remained. For free marketeers, the question was simply whether or not to spend public money on the poor-they did not anticipate that idle young men present a social problem. Without school, work, or military service, these poor young men were left on the street-corner, sometimes acting disorderly and often fuelling fears of crime. We may have skimped on welfare, but we paid anyway, splurging on police and prisons.”

    The problem here is that Pfaff isn’t even engaging the arguments made by Western. Pfaff says that it is a myth that America recently became more punitive but concedes that America has locked up more people than other cultures for much of the twentieth century. Pfaff dismisses prison reform by saying that reform won’t work because of our culture. But what if we change the culture?