What do you think of when you hear “convict?” How about “jail,” “prison,” “criminal” or “felon?”
If you’re told that someone is a felon before you meet them, does it change how you view them initially? Business owners, how much does a criminal background matter and does it depend on the charges?
In America, we run a prison-for-profit system. Well, some of the states do. A startling number.
America has more private, for-profit prisons than you might think. I’ve written about it before for Addicting Info. You see, the idea is that it’ll be cheaper to run prison like a business; the business can cut costs where effective and lower the overall cost to the government (the government pays a sort of rent in this case for beds). Unfortunately, the for-profit prison system does run exactly like a business — in all of the wrong ways. In order to maximize profits, they hire poor staff, and assaults on both inmates (by other inmates) and staff increase by 50%. They also refuse to take sick inmates, thus saving themselves money as a business but increasing costs for publicly run institutions.
So private-run prisons are more expensive for the state in the end, and aren’t quality institutions anyhow.
That isn’t the real danger they pose. The industry, through activists and lobbyists, controls legislators on the state level. Take the CCA, for example. Operating in an industry that has exploded by 1600% over the last 20 years, the Corrections Corporation for America is currently housing 80,000 inmates in 60 facilities in 16 different states. Pressure is put on legislators to pass laws that benefit the private prison industry.
That’s only a small part of a larger problem, though. Most of the issue comes from the American attitude and stigma regarding criminal behavior. I’m not saying crimes aren’t wrong; I’m saying that criminal behavior is only a symptom. Just like with schooling, incarceration shouldn’t have one-size-fits-all solutions. I’m sorry to say it, but assigning years to crimes that are arbitrarily categorized based on incomplete data isn’t the right thing to do. The punishment should reflect the crime and work to rehabilitate the person that committed it.
That being said, I don’t feel that all criminals are re-habitable, and I do think incarceration is a good idea. But not incarceration the way we do it now, with a staggering number of Americans in prisons and jails across the country. Not to mention the fact that something like two thirds of felons recidivism and end up back in jail. Crime and punishment shouldn’t be about a patriarchal sense of justice; it should be about reimbursing the individuals and community involved to the greatest extent possible and avoiding the incident happening again. In that vein, it’s necessary to seek unique reparations based on the unique thing that happened, as well as to work with the person that committed the crime in order to avoid possible repetitions of such behavior in the future.
Every crime is committed for a reason. In the case of sexual and violent crimes, it is likely that there is something mentally wrong with them that may be treatable. Incarceration in an institution and mental rehabilitation should be in order. With sexual and violent crimes more than any other, a type of “punishment” is necessary, because it isn’t something that can be taken back or made up for. Rape, which falls neatly between sexual and violent (sex used for violence), is a good example of that. I firmly believe that if a male rapes a female (the most common way for rape to happen), there is something wrong with the male involved. I don’t think many people would dispute that. However, he has done her irreparable harm, doing something that lacks humanity or empathy by subjecting her to both physical and mental anguish. Honestly, I don’t feel that men will ever understand the female perspective of rape. Although it’s possibly inaccurate, I would even venture that a man that is raped doesn’t go through the same thing. That’s because of the emphasis our culture puts on defining women based on their sexuality, and it’s a pervasive belief that can make a rape victim’s self-worth vanish. I’m going to stop digressing, now, and get back to the point.
The vast majority of inmates aren’t about sexual or violent crime, though. They’re drug crimes and property crimes. A high percentage of violent and property crimes also have drugs involved in one way or another.
Is long-term prison really the solution for a drug user — or even a drug dealer? Think about it for a second. Imagine that you’re a teenage kid in a somewhat bad neighborhood. Unemployment is rampant, and you can’t find a job without a connection. It’s the summer time, you don’t have school, and your friend asks you if you’d like to sell a little weed or something for money. You end up pretty good at it. Your “business” expands, until you’re only selling to people that sell. You work with local gangs and have your own area to sell in. You defend that area — it’s your livelihood, after all — from rival dealers.
One day, you get busted. It’s a pretty major bust and you end up in prison for 20 years.
Does that solve the problem? Does that repair the damage caused by the series of events?
No. It doesn’t. Someone else is just going to rise up in the place of the dealer that’s arrested. Dealers are even more replaceable than users, and most people see how pointless prison incarceration is for a chronic drug user. Same thing with prostitution. If you jail a woman for prostitution, you’re just taking away her income for the time she’s in jail. Also, she’s stigmatized as a criminal prostitute. That decreases her chances of moving up in life.
I’ve now addressed two issues at the heart of America’s prison dilemma. One is the criminalization of permanent industries such as sex for money and drugs. The other is poverty.
Should prostitution be legal? Almost certainly. I’m not even sure that there’s a cogent argument against it that doesn’t invoke religious morals. That’s also sort of funny, because I’m sure there are those individuals out there that would both be offended by the suggestion that prostitution should be legal and commonly soliciting prostitutes. Legalizing it makes the risk of disease diminish, the risk of violence diminish and partially removes the stigma. It makes the stigma escapable, at least, by not having a strike on her criminal record about it.
I know that every reference to prostitute has been female, and sorry to any offended feminists out there. I’m generalizing for the sake of clarity, but I am well aware that there are male prostitutes as well.
Should drugs be legalized? Ah, now that’s the tricky one. Marijuana? Of course. Most educated adults are aware that the paper industry exerted pressure to criminalize it and that legalization is the best option. Especially in my state, actually; Oregon’s marijuana bill that failed would have legalized the hemp industry, revitalizing the counties that used to depend on the lumber industry. I live in one such county. While I’m aware not much would have happened without a blind federal eye being turned, the possibility was still exciting.
But what about other drugs? Cocaine? Heroin? Methamphetamine? Methylenedioxymethamphetamine?
I don’t know so much about that. It’s hard to justify legalizing recreational use of any of those, but it’s also hard to figure out where to draw the line. After all, caffeine improves my mood in a measurable way. It has a measurable impact on me. So do alcohol and marijuana — alcohol is legal, marijuana is not, but they are comparable in the sense that they have a similar level of impact on me (I say me because I don’t presume to know what your own experience is. So, yes, I’m 19 and have drank alcohol and smoked a little pot. Please don’t get too upset).
Where is the line drawn? I don’t argue there is one — I think that substances should be objectively reviewed and have their legal status depend upon an accurate cost/benefit analysis regarding their presumptive impact on society. That sounds hard to do, but that’s only because the science isn’t there yet. It’s an under-researched subject. We don’t look at drugs objectively, and we never have. It would be taboo in American culture to consider it.
And the other driver behind American criminal culture. Poverty. Poverty is a sad thing. I grew up partially in a below-poverty household, where finding things to eat and having hot water for half the month could be real problems. As an angrily self-reliant teenager past the point of overconfidence, I didn’t understand how lucky I was in that I lived in a city with a population of 40,000 — my street wasn’t one you walked down at night if you weren’t with a group, but if you did you weren’t going to get shot or killed. Maybe robbed or beat up, but murder or maiming aren’t all that likely. It might be worse if you’re a minority (the city is 97% white, and most of that 3% I believe is Hispanic and came in over the last 15 years or so), but I was sort of blind to the problems of other people at that point.
In a bigger city, crime gets more organized. Gangs are a sort of feudal society that takes over the bad parts of larger cities. I really don’t blame gangs for what they are or the violence that results; it’s a symptom of a diseased society. We have a sickness here of lacking empathy; even saying “the poor” has an almost dirty ring to it. Americans are taught to dispose people that are in bad economic situations, even if they themselves are.
Education and organized help for areas especially devastated by rampant poverty are essential. Education to improve the economic futures of those educated, allowing them to, with many more possibilities in their futures, help lift the area up. Social programs are a must, and if a way to create employment can be found, find it. That’s what we should be spending money on. Not spending money on witch hunts in the middle east.
Crime, and criminals, are symptom of a disease that needs to be cured. Not punished. The money isn’t there for it, but that doesn’t mean the issue doesn’t need to be addressed.
If you have some time, here’s some awesome TED talks on the subject.