Diminishing Returns to Incarceration

Diminishing Returns to Incarceration

Prison is often thought of as an important crime deterrent and tool against crime. Prison sentences discourage the bad guys from committing crimes, because they know there is a possible lengthy stay in jail waiting for them if they get caught. Additionally, when individuals are incarcerated they are not out on the streets committing more crimes. The deterrence and lock-up benefits of incarceration are part of what make incarceration such an appealing option for those who wish to be seen as tough on crime in the United States.
 
 
But there also seem to be diminishing returns to incarceration, and at a certain point incarceration can begin to be counter productive and even harmful. Specifically thinking about diminishing returns to incarceration in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “once the most violent individuals have been locked up, imprisoning more of them rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns.” Each prisoner you lock-up after you have locked up the worst offenders, is marginally less bad. Their crimes, or potential crimes, become marginally less serious, and as a response, the benefit of locking them up is decreased. The crimes they may be deterred from may be less severe to begin with, and the time for which they are incarcerated is doesn’t equate to more serious crimes being avoided, but more marginally less bad crimes being averted.
 
 
Pinker continues, “since people tend to get less violent as they get older, keeping men in prison beyond a certain point does little to reduce crime.” We can boast about how long we lock up the bad guys, but if that term extends beyond the point at which that individual may be a threat to society, then it is fair to ask whether their continued punishment is worthwhile. Perhaps an exceptionally long prison sentence, beyond the point at which an individual is likely to still be a threat, is a good deterrent before any crimes are committed, but if it is not, then we use important resources to incarcerate a person who otherwise could be a productive member of society or at least otherwise not drain resources while incarcerated.
 
 
The diminishing returns to incarceration are not discussed as much as the idea of tough on crime prison sentences is. We like locking people up, we like having a major deterrent in the form of incarceration, and we like the sense of justice we receive from imprisoning a bad guy for a long time. But we don’t like knowing that our criminal justice system in the United States has more people incarcerated that almost any other country on earth. We don’t like knowing that our prisons are costing society and that individuals released from prison may not have any avenue back into productive society as a result of being locked up for such lengthy times. It is important to consider the diminishing returns to incarceration to determine whether it is truly the best form of punishment to pursue and whether we would be better served by alternatives means of deterring sever crime.
Free Will & Judicial Systems

Free Will & Judicial Systems

What happens to the justice system in the Untied States when a majority of people no longer believe that humans actually have free will? There is still a debate within science as to whether or not humans actually have free will, but there is evidence to suggest that free will is a useful illusion, but not an idea that is supported by science.
 
 
Ideas of free will assume there is some sort of inner magic taking place within humans. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari compares the inner explanations of free will to Christian explanations of the soul. While I think there may still be a non-religious stance from which one could argue free will exists, I think his comparison is useful – though perhaps a bit intentionally provocative. Harari writes, “Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there. They increasingly argue that human behavior is determined by hormones, genes, and synapses, rather than by free will.”
 
 
Science suggests that humans are pretty easy to manipulate in a controlled lab setting. We can give people suggestions and directions without them realizing it, and they will make excuses and justifications of their action that support the idea of free will afterward. This doesn’t translate into some sort of totalitarian regime of mind control, but it does challenge ideas of free will. Additionally, we can observe action potentials within the brain that trigger an action before a person is consciously aware of an action. This is another suggestion that free will is more of an illusion than a central aspect of our consciousness.
 
 
Which brings me to the question in the title of this post. A question Harari asks directly by writing, “our judicial and political systems largely try to sweep such inconvenient discoveries [scientific findings that suggest we don’t have free will] under the carpet. But in all frankness, how long can we maintain the wall separating the department of biology from the departments of law and political science?” What happens to the judicial system when it is not just a group of brainy scientists and nerds who read Sapiens that agree that free will doesn’t appear to be real? When we view human behaviors and decisions as greatly influenced by biological factors beyond the control of an individual, how do we justify incarceration, seemingly arbitrary prison sentences, and ideas of responsibility for committing crimes?
 
 
Our judicial system relies on beliefs of the individual, of conscious, rational, and free will decision-making. When those foundational aspects of the judicial system are challenged by enough people in society, it is unclear how we truly proceed with pursuing justice. Everything from arrests, to trials, to the length of prison sentences may potentially be shaken up and reconsidered if we collectively agree that free will and ideas of the individual are more of illusions than concrete aspects of our reality.

The Extent of Mass Incarceration

“More African American Adults are under correctional control today—in prison or jail, on probation or parol—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” Michelle Alexander writes this in her book, The New Jim Crow, to demonstrate the extent of mass incarceration in the United States. Mass incarceration is simply the term we use to describe our extensive and high number of arrests and level of imprisionment, and it is a problem because the justice system in many ways does not operate like the blind and fair system we imagine or would like. Criminal justice in the United States, and truly everywhere, depends on humans. We have to have humans to set the laws, arrest the rule-breakers, determine the appropriate punishment, and then deliver a sentence. Throughout The New Jim Crow, Alexander demonstrates how this system has broken down in our country because of the humans, because of our inability to see people without prejudice, and because of a history of race that we cannot simply forget with colorblind glasses.

“The mass incarceration of people with color is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery.” When we do not think about criminal justice, and when we do not think about people as people, we allow systems to grow that operate with the worst parts of our nature. Our tribalism takes over and we begin seeing other people and other groups as somehow less than ourselves and the groups to which we belong. We start to look at cultures that are not our own and find ways in which those cultures seem to be inferior to our culture, and then we justify the inequality which benefits us while disadvantaging those from the other tribe.

“The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.” What Alexander is explaining is that we are (as a society and as a whole) responsible for the actions, behaviors, and cultures that we see around us and describe as inferior. Concentrated poverty has a disastrous impact on the future of young children, and it was our society and our housing and zoning policies that lead to the segregated ghettos that produced those cultures that we so heavily criticize today. Our decisions, our tribal brains, our self-interest, our ability to exploit others for our own gain, our ability to rationalize our success, our ability to blame the individual for their failure, and our ability to de-humanize those who we see as less than ourselves lead to a nation where we have restricted certain groups of individuals, denied them economic and social mobility, and arrested them for their inevitable humanity. Mass incarceration is not an honest reaction to crime, violence, danger, and a need for punishment. It is a cancerous outgrowth of policy and decisions made in bad faith to protect those who have been favored at the expense of those who have been exploited.

Our Environment, Incarceration, and Societal Responsibility

In my last post, I wrote about Cory Booker’s reactions to meeting inmates at a prison when he was in law school. Having a chance to speak with inmates and ask them about their lives, the environments they grew up and lived in, and how they approached life in jail was very impactful for Booker. He began to look at people in prison as real people, and began to look at them beyond just the negative things they had done. In short, he began to see a more full picture of who the people he met were. Reflecting on the experience Booker wrote, “I could walk out of that place instead of remaining not just because of my own choices but also because of the abundantly privileged environments in which I had lived.” It was where Booker grew up, the support his family provided, and the schools Booker was able to attend that shaped his life and the choices he could make. Throughout his life he has certainly had to make smart decisions and has certainly had to work hard, but because he grew up in a more affluent part of New Jersey and because his family was able to provide for him (both financially and in terms of being role models) Booker saw a true avenue and opportunity to make the right decisions.

 

Many of those who end up in jail do not start out with the same advantages as Booker. It is not to say that we can excuse the crimes and mistakes they have made, but if we truly want to correct behavior, and if we truly want to put an end to crime throughout society, we must think about what we provide for others and what the environment is like where these individuals grow up, work, and live.

 

As Booker left the prison he thought about the people society has left behind and the decisions society has made to lock problems away in prisons. “I walked out of the prison free, and yet I was shackled to what I now knew,” Booker writes, “I was implicated. I couldn’t take my full measure of pride in our greatness as a society if  I was not willing to take responsibility for our failures.” In America we place a lot of responsibility on the individual and we celebrate individual achievement and success to a high degree. We are also quick to point out the moral shortcomings and negative traits in others that lead to failure. Our society is quick to celebrate individual accomplishments and we are able to view ourselves in the success stories of others, taking pride in one person’s accomplishments as a reflection of the potential within our society. When one fails however, we are not quick to latch on to their negative outcome and identify ways that their failure could be attributed to society.

 

Great  wealth is a result of a superior capitalistic society and freedom, when local sports teams win it is a result of community support and fandom, and when a new business opens up it is because our community is so vibrant and wonderful that we attract the interests of those who want to give us more. Failure on the other hand, is a result of an individual being unable to accurately read the economy. Crime stems from personal moral failures. And poverty exists because other people are lazy and don’t want to take jobs. This split in how we all share success but view failure as individual shortcomings is an inaccurate and shortsighted view of society.

 

Booker’s time visiting the prison helped him to see that how society is organized impacts the opportunities that people face. How society supports or abandons people makes it easy for some to make good decisions and generate wealth, and it places others in positions where crime and poverty are hard to avoid. It is hard to take pride in society when we leave behind so many people and focus all our attention instead on a relative few that achieve great success.

Those in Jail

Senator Cory Booker shares a story about visiting a prison in his book United, and he describes the people he met behind bars. In his passage he describes the men in a way that elevates their humanity, which is a shift from the descriptions most people have of men in prison, which reduces their humanity. Booker writes,

 

“What struck me was how similar this talk was to the ones I’d had in the law school cafeteria with my classmates. The men were sharp and sophisticated. What struck me was how normal they seemed to me; they seemed like guys I knew. By no means did I lose sight of the fact that some of them had committed horrible crimes, but it was also clear that these human beings were much more than the crimes they had committed. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, they were much more than the worst things they had done.”

 

It is easy to look at people who have made mistakes and those who had done wrong and to judge them by their shortcomings alone. We seem to do a great job of seeing the flaws in others and criticizing other people’s actions, especially if they are hypocritical, in an effort to elevate ourselves and feel better about the things we have done. Recognizing that other people, especially those who have made large mistakes, are still human and share many aspects of humanity with us requires that we step back, look at ourselves and our own mistakes, and try to understand where individuals made mistakes and how they can move forward from them. It is hard to see people as more than the bad things they have done, and those mistakes can hang over them forever, constantly preventing them from moving on with their lives.

 

Stepping back and looking at others in a way that highlights their humanity over their mistakes is a practice that Marcus Aurelius described. When looking at himself relative to other people he writes, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still thou hast the disposition to commit them, either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” This awareness can help us understand that the individuals in prison still matter and that the gap that separates us from them is smaller than we would like to think.

 

Not seeing the humanity in those we arrest leads those individuals to become ostracized from the community, making it harder for them to reconnect with society after they have served their sentence. By treating them as sub-human, rather than recognizing that we have many of the same urges to commit crimes, and by focusing on their worst actions we limit their possibilities. We deny government aid and federal housing assistance to those with criminal backgrounds and employers avoid hiring those who were arrested. Focusing so much fear and avoidance on these individuals makes it difficult for them to feel like citizens, and drives the punishment of their crime well beyond their time in prison. There should be punishment for serious mistakes, but when that punishment extends into perpetuity, we risk pushing people toward more crime in a negative feedback loop that seems to run against the stated purposes of our criminal justice system.