America's Desperate Need for Prison Reform

rikersIt is difficult for a variety of reasons to get politicians to focus on this issue, for fear of being labeled “soft on crime,” but right now in America there is a significant amount of rot that permeates virtually every aspect of our criminal justice system and that desperately needs to be addressed. Kevin D. Williamson has a great article in NRO today about the possibly the worst aspect of it, and the least frequently discussed, our horrible prison system that is unworthy of our status as a great nation. Read, as they say, the whole thing.

I have relatively little sympathy for violent criminal offenders in terms of the punishments they receive. IN fact, I would say that the death penalty is drastically under-utilized in this country. That having been said, the jailers’ and police unions, combined with the ever-encroaching regulatory state and the increasing reach of the “war on drugs” have created a critical mass of non-violent offenders who are being subjected to conditions that do not match their offenses. Corrupt guards, insufficient prevention of abuse from fellow inmates, and deplorable living conditions in many places combine to create conditions that should register as an affront to the decency of all who witness them.

It is difficult to get people to care about this issue because most of the people in the prison system do not make very sympathetic stories. And I definitely understand and believe that criminal offenders, particularly of the violent and recidivist kind, deserve to locked away from peaceful society on a long term basis. But while locked away, they are nonetheless human beings deserving of humane treatment (which is not to say comfortable treatment). I cringe at the fact that as a society we seem to be comfortable – even to the point of cracking jokes – with the concept that possession of a few ounces of cocaine or theft of an automobile is punished with decades of sexual abuse, official corruption, and constant close quarters contact with truly violent and sociopath inmates.

It is time to face facts. The first and most vital of these is that our prison population is too large – drastically too large, in fact. Our criminal justice system does a terrible job at the outset of distinguishing those who deserve incarceration and who do not. Reducing the prison population through reclassifying nonviolent offenses and reducing the crushing reach of the state would allow meaningful reform and allow meaningful discussion of increased oversight of prison guards. However, all these efforts are opposed by powerful interest groups that give almost invariably to Democrats – including police and jailer unions who want to protect the jobs of their members. The ridiculous size of the prison population is likewise a strain on both federal and state budgets.

But more to the point, we also need reform on what goes on behind bars for people who are there. This is every bit as meaningful as reform on the front end (in terms of interaction with police). I am not advocating for free HBO for all prisoners and for government sponsored gender reassignment surgery or anything of the like – just a basic commitment to the recognition that even prisoners are human beings and entitled to treatment with basic dignity, even when they are no longer entitled to their freedom. We can’t afford to continue turning a blind eye to what is happening just because these people committed offenses in the first place. The hallmark of a just society is that the punishment should fit the crime, and for millions of people in America, we are falling far short of that goal.