Sunday, August 01, 2010

The punishment culture

Last week's issue of "The Economist"(July 24th-30th issue) has as its cover headline "Why America locks up too many people". The lead editorial was entitled "Rough Justice" and the lead article was "Too many laws, too many prisoners". What's covered in the magazine is an important issue in this country, an embarrassment and anything but justice, that no politician dares touch. That it takes a publication from another country to focus seriously and constructively on this U.S. problem indicates how deeply embedded a vindictive and callous culture of imprisonment has become. That this magazine is generally viewed as somewhere between conservative and libertarian on social issues and a consistent proponent of free markets on economic ones should put off those who want to characterize anyone who chastises America's system of "justice" as soft on crime or bleeding heart lefties.

Much of what follows will let The Economist's writers lay out their views.

"It seems odd that a country that rejoices in limiting the power of the state should give so many draconian powers to its government, yet for the past 40 years American lawmakers have generally regarded selling to voters the idea of locking up fewer people as political suicide."

"No other rich country is nearly as punitive as the Land of the Free. The rate of incarceration is a fifth of America's level in Britian, a ninth in Germany, and a twelfth in Japan... America's incarceration rate has quadrupled since 1970." In comparison to other countries America's incarceration rate "is explained neither by a difference in criminality nor by the success of the policy. America's violent-crime rate is higher than it was 40 years ago".

Quoting Gene Healy, a libertarian scholar the article states "The founding fathers viewed the criminal sanction as a last resort, reserved for serious offences, clearly defined, so ordinary citizens would know whether they were violating the law. Yet over the last 40 years , an unholy alliance of big-business-hating liberals and tough-on-crime conservatives has made criminalization the first line of attack - a way to demonstrate seriousness about the social problem of the month, whether it's corporate scandals or e-mail spam. You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl."

"The system has three big flaws, say critics. First, it puts too many people away for too long. Second, it criminalises acts that need not be criminalised. Third, it is unpredictable. Many laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them."

"Half of the states have laws that lock up habitual offenders for life. In some states that applies only to violent criminals, but in others it applies to even petty ones. Some 3,700 people who committed neither violent nor serious crimes are serving life sentences under California's 'three strikes and you're out' law. In Alabama a petty thief called Jerald Sanders was given a life term for pinching a bicycle."

In The Economist's editorial and lead story there are, as any good journalists would find, many examples of absurd punishments for minor and at times completely unintended crimes. A defender of the U.S. system would no doubt suggest that these are isolated cases used by the writers to exaggerate the problem. The overall statistics, however, would suggest that the problem is pervasive.

There are major parts of the article that discuss the criminalisation of minor drug offenses and the huge sentences that are given to young people for these crimes, essentially dooming them to a life of disenfranchisement, the inability to be licensed in many fields, and the stigma that follows them for what part of their lives are left. Also discussed in some depth is the coercion used in prosecuting white collar crimes where "for example, they(prosecutors) can count each e-mail sent by a white collar criminal in the course of criminal activity as a source of wire fraud, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. The decades soon add up." Those who profess innocence are often forced into plea bargains before trial with this pressure and can be turned into witnesses against others and be putty in the hands of our system of "justice". What is not discussed in the article, but could be, are the horrible conditions in many prisons, the abuse by fellow prisoners that is often tolerated if not encouraged, and the epidemic of sadistic corrections officers that often exploit and torment the prison population.

There is much more to this magazine's exposé that can't be covered in this post, and I paused before using the word "exposé" because it is all so obvious. It's just that no one in power wants to look seriously at this destructive and costly system that produces no documented benefit and so much harm to many of our citizens.


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