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11.1.09

Pessimistic About Prisons

The AP says that some prison reformers see the current economic crisis as an opportunity to get governments to rethink their harsh and ineffective prison policies. I'm rather more pessimistic.

I understand the promotional value of framing prison reform as a natural response to tightening budgets, and I agree that a reformed system would be cheaper, particularly in the big picture when reduced costs from crime and community disruption are taken into account. But I also think that for prison reform to really work, we need a shift in thinking from "crack down on criminals" to "prevent crime."* And I don't think changes made primarily for fiscal reasons will bring about such as shift, and thus they won't be sustainable beyond the end of this recession.

I think it's more likely that prison conditions will get worse. In a crisis, surrounded by economic uncertainty, people will cling to a strong need for imposed order and insider-outsider dynamics. The first things to go will be rehabilitative programs like job training and GED classes, and budgets for things like health care and food will tighten (though Sheriff Joe and Sheriff Greg are way ahead of the game here). Early release and reduced sentences for non-violent offenders will have some beneficial effects, though those folks will mostly just be dumped back on the street without any re-integration programs. When jobs are scarce, how popular will it be to take steps to open them up to people with criminal histories? The likely fate of social service and early-intervention programs that try to help people before they end up committing crimes seems obvious. Prison overcrowding will be rampant (the pictures with the AP story are frightening, although my wife assures me that's not normal -- yet). Overcrowding and a lack of outlets will fuel conflict between groups of prisoners and between prisoners and guards (if you've got nothing else to do all day, why not start a race riot?), in turn justifying harsher treatment. And there will be a strong temptation to turn more prisoners over to private companies with minimal oversight. All in all, not a pretty picture.

*It's interesting that a lot of tough moral dilemmas are of the form "Would you do X beneficial thing, even if it hurt someone?" whereas prison reform asks "Would you do Y beneficial thing, even if it was nice to prisoners?"

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