The Caging of America

Adam Gupnik, writing in The New Yorker, considers why America locks up so many people in prisons. It’s a lengthy piece that offers some good thoughts on the relationship between incarceration and crime rate. My only regret is that the editing of the piece is a bit shoddy at places (where the reader may get confused with Gupnik’s opinion to that of another writer’s).

First, some startling statistics about the scale of incarceration in the United States:

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height. 

Furthermore,

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. 

What Charles Dickens wrote about the American prison system upon visiting in 1842:

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. 

This dichotomy between business and the social good is quite disconcerting:

[A] growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible.

An interesting note about the relationship between increased incarceration and decreased crime rates (there is no conclusive evidence, essentially):

Trends and fashions and fads and pure contingencies happen in other parts of our social existence; it may be that there are fashions and cycles in criminal behavior, too, for reasons that are just as arbitrary.

Finally, there is Franklin E. Zimring’s (author of The City That Became Safe) argument of how crime can be minimized. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry. There is this circular path:  the decreased prevalence of crime fuels a decrease in the prevalence of crime.

The piece is excellent, except for this point made by the author, who thinks that non-violent crime should carry lenient punishment:

No social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years?

The answer to that question is: absolutely. We need stricter punishments for insider trading because lenient punishments have not been working. How would the thousands of people who were ripped off by Bernie Madoff feel if Madoff’s punishment was doing “community service for five years”?

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