America has a prison problem. Never in the history of the world has a country locked up so many of its people. We have more prisons than China, and it has a billion more people than we do. Forty years ago America had 338,000 people behind bars. Today 2.3 million are incarcerated. We have more prisoners than soldiers. Something has gone terribly wrong.
The problem — mostly due to longer and mandatory sentences combined with an idiotic war on drugs — is so abysmal that the Supreme Court recently ordered 33,000 prisoners in California to be housed elsewhere or released. If California could simply return to its 1970 level of incarceration, the savings from its $9 billion prison budget would cut the state’s budget deficit in half. But doing so would require the release of 125,000 inmates, and not even the most progressive reformer has a plan to reduce the prison population by 85 percent.
Flogging seems barbaric to us but actually conditions in most prisons are far worse. if I had to choose between getting five or ten lashes or spending five years in prison getting beaten up and raped, it would be an easy choice for me.
Moskos seems to think that the root of the problem is the idea that prisons would rehabilitate the criminals housed in them. That has obviously not worked so well and instead they have become huge warehouses, which actually contribute to crime.
The idea was that penitentiaries would heal the criminally ill just as hospitals cured the physically sick. It didn’t work. Yet despite — or perhaps because of — the failures of the first prisons, states authorized more and larger prisons. With flogging banned and crime not cured, there was simply no alternative. We tried rehabilitation and ended up with supermax. We tried to be humane and ended up with more prisoners than Stalin had at the height of the Soviet Gulag. Somewhere in the process, we lost the concept of justice and punishment in a free society.
Today, the prison-industrial complex has become little more than a massive government-run make-work program that profits from human bondage. To oversimplify — just a bit — we pay poor, unemployed rural whites to guard poor, unemployed urban blacks.
Of course some people are simply too dangerous to release — pedophiles, terrorists and the truly psychopathic, for instance. But they’re relatively few in number. And we keep these people behind bars because we’re afraid of them.
As to the other 2 million common criminals, the 2 million more than we had in 1970, we can’t and won’t keep them locked up forever. Ninety-five percent of prisoners are eventually released. The question is not if but when and how.
Incarceration not only fails to deter crime but in many ways can increase it. For crime driven by economic demand, such as drug dealing, arresting one seller creates a job opening for others, who might fight over the vacant position.
Incarceration destroys families and jobs, exactly what people need to have in order to stay away from crime. Incarcerated criminals are more likely to reoffend than similar people given alternative sentences. To break the cycle of crime, people need help. And they would need less help if they were never incarcerated in the first place.
He forgets to mention that prisons can become schools of crime in which criminals are able to learn new techniques from each other.
Is Peter Moskos right? Should we reintroduce flogging? I don’t really know. I don’t think the lash will deter many potential criminals though. I could be wrong, but I get the impression that the reason many criminals are criminals is that they exhibit poor impulse control and do not think through the consequences of their actions.