Monday, March 2, 2009

Student reaction paper on crime and punishment.

Here is a student paper that elicited some thinking on my part:

Last week in class we discussed California letting out 1/3 of the prison population within the next three years. I looked at some other articles online and the reasons for this idea is not only due to over population, but also because of poor health care and mental health care inside the prisons. Also, the sources I found online stated that California’s prison authority need to add more amenities to the prison for the prisoners’ well being.

I do not agree that jail should be full of special amenities that everyday people get. Jail is not supposed to be the life of luxury that they could have on the outside. They are there for a reason, and with most of them being parole violators they will most likely end up right back in jail. I do not think that letting these people go is the answer to their money problems and I think that they need to look elsewhere, such as public assistance—who has it and should they? I believe that setting these people free does not set the right example for the youth. To me it says that if you go to jail there might be a chance you get out because the state cannot afford for you to be housed in jail. I think that the federal judges should re-think their decision on letting 57,000 inmates free.

One of your arguments is that releasing prisoners will reduce the threat of jail time as a punishment, and particularly you mention that youth will have reduced fear of being sent to jail. I am not a criminologist, but I’ve had enough exposure to research on violent offending to understand that the threat of punishment is often not strongly considered by offenders. The more salient fact for offenders is the likelihood that they will in fact be caught and punished at all. That is a variable that can be influenced by good forensic police work more than sentencing practices and prison conditions. Secondly, I wonder very much whether the fear of long prison sentences is very closely related to probable length of sentencing. I mean, I doubt the probability of a four-year spell in jail is twice as scary to a potential offender as the probability of a two-year sentence. And the probability of an eight-year sentence isn’t likely to be significantly more dissuasive than a four-year sentence. I’m just guessing about that, but I wonder if shorter sentencing for some crimes would be helpful in reducing prison overcrowding, and could be accomplished without significantly reducing the fear people have of being sentenced to jail time.

I’m also curious about the possibility of house arrest and parole. As you point out, many in jail were released on parole and then were sent back to jail for parole violations. I’d very much like to read a study of why people violate parole and what happens when people do violate parole. If it is the case that offenders violate parole by blowing off meetings with their parole officers or possessing guns or selling drugs, then that deserves one sort of response, but if they violate parole by missing a meeting with their parole officer because they lack transportation, or they are tested and found to have used marijuana, or they leave the county for a day to visit a relative in a different part of the state, then those sort of parole violations seem to warrant a less strict response than the more serious parole violations, and I don’t know if parole violations are in fact treated differently with respect to the seriousness of the crimes and types of parole violations.

Another thing I wonder about is the cost of having close supervision of offenders in non-prison settings like house arrest. Could we have people sleep at home (with electronic monitoring to ensure that they remain home), and report to treatment-detention centers every day for 40-hours of rehabilitative study, work, and treatment each week as if they had jobs, and then give them furloughs on weekends? This would be a punitive system that would involve a greater emphasis on rehabilitation, and for offenders who weren’t considered a menace to society, it might be just as safe for the non-offending population. You might have jobs for therapists, social workers, teachers, coaches, and other helpers in the rehabilitation-detention centers, but you would have fewer jobs for prison guards. I’d like to see studies of alternative treatment and punitive systems, with evidence about what such things do to recidivism, how many people under alternative sentencing commit property or personal crimes (of violence), and then look at the costs of alternative sentencing relative to imprisonment.

The thing I’m getting at here is that a pragmatic view is to look at costs and results, and try to ignore our sense of outrage and anger at people who break the law. Yes, it’s human and natural to want revenge. Any social worker who helps clients plagued with addiction would like to see drug dealers removed from society forever, or even shot (I’ve fantasized about just killing all the drug dealers, but it’s just a fantasy, and I’d never actually advocate it or approve of it if this daydream were acted upon). And so, when we think of people in jail, we think of people who threaten us or threaten our property or undermine our society, and we're angry about that.

In fact, a very high percentage of persons in jail have been sentenced to relatively long jail terms for relatively minor crimes, drug possession for example. How long should a person spend in jail if they are found to be in possession of some heroine, cocaine, marijuana, or methamphetamine? How long should a person spend in jail if they steal and do property damage that costs someone $600 to repair and recover? When a person tries to steal my radio I’d like him to spend several months in jail for the audacity of trying to take my property, but if I stop and think about it, it would cost society hundreds of times the value of my radio to put the thief in jail for a year. It might be far more cost-effective to let the thief spend only a few weeks in jail, and then sentence the thief to a year of rehabilitation services that would try to change his or her life and make him or her a productive and law-abiding citizen. It wouldn’t be as punitive, but as a practical matter, I wonder about the relative costs and the chances for a better outcome for myself, my society, and the thief. Although our brains react to retribution and revenge the same way they react to satisfying thirst or hunger, why should we let such instinctive desires dictate our policies?

Your reaction doesn’t reflect on these issues. You are reacting only to the surface issue of justice, and you are thinking about the punitive aspects of incarceration. Yes, of course punishment is necessary because it does in fact have power to prevent many people from doing crimes. It is also necessary because it helps those of who are law-abiding have faith in our system of justice, that people who harm us will endure harm themselves as retribution for their transgression. But beyond the punitive aspects of the justice system we must consider other aspects of justice and social improvement, practicality, and costs. Are punishments fitting to the crime? Are punishments fair or are they cruel? What are “extras and amenities” that prisoners should be denied, and what are basic services and conditions that prisoners deserve?

There may also be pragmatic issues about what prisoners can get. Perhaps prisoners don’t deserve movies, television, video games, books, an aesthetic environment, or tasty and nutritious food; but in fact, if they do get a certain level of these things they may be more likely to behave passively and develop better self-images of themselves as dignified human beings who are too good to fall down to pattern of life where they would again commit crimes. And, if you deny those good things you may be cultivating a sense of resentment, cruelty, and malice in the prisoners, so that when they are finally released they will swiftly commit crimes if they think they can get away with them. This is a question of fact (we need research to answer what in fact will happen), that would have a bearing on pragmatic decisions about what we should do for prisoners. If research shows that it’s better (cost-effective, reduces recidivism, cheaper, yields better outcomes for everyone concerned) to give prisoners certain amenities, you then will need to decide whether you want to hold to a principle that prisoners should be kept at a level of high dissatisfaction and discomfort while incarcerated because prison is punitive, or whether you want to save money and improve outcomes by treating prisoners with levels of kindness, support, and rehabilitative services.

A good example is education. Outside of jail people must pay for college education, and people go deep into debt to fund their college studies. If we offered college education to prisoners, the prisoners would have no way to pay. But, what if it turns out that when prisoners are educated and earn college degrees the result is that they are better behaved in prison, and when they get out their recidivism is reduced by 75%, and also when they get out they tend to end up earning better incomes and becoming taxpayers rather than welfare recipients? Let’s imagine the results of providing college education to prisoners were in fact this good, then we might compare the costs of giving college educations to prisoners or not giving college educations to them and discover that providing a college education to prisoners saves taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars per each prisoner over a lifespan. Then what will we do? If such a situation were true, it would make pragmatic and economic sense to give free college educations to prisoners who had the ambition and ability to earn such an education. But, it would also be terribly unjust, because law-abiding people who never go to jail don’t usually get free college educations. The program of prison college education would create perverse incentives that would encourage people to commit crimes and go to jail so they could get free college educations (at least it would reduce the fear people would have of the punishment of incarceration).

Would the answer be to make college education free to everyone outside jail in order to make college educations for prisoners fair? But college education, although mostly a public good, is also somewhat a private good, and it make sense to ask a student to bear some of the cost of their college education, since they will reap the largest gain from their own college education. (I think it’s fair to ask college students and their families to pay between 10% and 40% of their college education expenses, and let the public make up the difference with taxes and spending since college-educated citizens generally make society a better place fore everyone). So, college outside of prison should probably not be free, and the issue of college education within prison would always be one that raises issues of pragmatism in conflict with fairness. How can we give away for free something to a person who violated the rules, while the person who obeyed the rules must pay for the same good?

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