As of June 30, 2007, the prisons and jails in the land of the free held 2,299,116 inmates; one in every 31 American adults is in prison, on parole, or on probation.
This week, we tackle the prison system. America imprisons more of her citizens, for more crimes, and for longer periods than any other nation in the world. At the beginning of 2008, nearly two and a half million people were in prison in the US. That’s one in every one hundred adults. China, with a population about four times ours, had a prison population of about one and a half million during that same period. Does this mass incarceration really serve the interest of justice? Or is it an inefficient, dysfunctional way of addressing social ills that would be better handled in other ways?
Now here’s a starting thought that might seem to justify those teeming numbers. The U.S. can be a violent place. Our prisons are overflowing with people because our streets are overflowing with violent crime. But violent crime is only part of the story. Here’s another fact. In the twenty-seven nations of the European Union, whose combined population exceeds ours by nearly two hundred million, the total prison population for all crimes combined is around six hundred thousand. In the US, we’ve got almost that number of people – five hundred thousand to be precise -- in prison for drug related crimes alone. And many of these crimes involve no violence whatsoever.
That’s a lot of people. And it costs a lot of money. The states spent almost fifty billion dollars on incarceration in 2007. That’s up from ten billion in 1987 – adjusting for inflation, that’s an increase of a hundred twenty-seven percent.
And not just how many we imprison, but who we imprison raises moral questions as well. African Americans make up roughly twelve percent of our total population, but they make up over forty percent of the prison population. Latinos make up thirteen percent of the population, but twenty percent of prison inmates. The prison system is one of the epicenters of racial inequality in America. If current trends continue, one-third of all black males and one-sixth of all Latino males will go to prison during their lives, as opposed to one in seventeen white males.
To make some philosophy out of those numbers, think about theories of just punishment.
Intuitively, we think of a just punishment as a punishment that "fits" the crime. But what exactly does that mean? What does it take for a punishment to “fit” a crime?
One what to start answering that question is to ask about the goals or aims of punishment. Suppose you thought that the point of punishment is to deter future crime. In that case, a punishment might be said to fit a crime, if the punish is just harsh enough to change the cost-benefit calculations of potential criminals.
Alternatively, you could think that punishment is about extracting retribution – an eye for an eye. In that case, a punishment would fit a crime, if the pain or harm imposed on the criminal was proportionate to the pain or harm that the criminal imposed on its victim.
It could also be the point of punishment is to rehabilitate the criminal. In that case, the punishment fits the crime only if it helps to make the criminal a better person. But it seems a little odd to think of this as a theory of punishment, exactly. You rehabilitate people by treating them or educating them. You don’t really punish a person when you treat or educate them. At a minimum, punishment requires condemnation. And what about the victim? Isn’t he at least owed some restitution?
Actually, we’ve just introduced two more theories of punishment. The restorative theory of punishment requires the criminal to make restitution for his crimes. The denunciation theory of punishment says that just punishment should express society’s collective condemnation of the criminal and his acts.
But by any measure -- deterrence, retribution, restitution, rehabilitation or social denunciation -- I suspect our prison system is riddled with moral imperfection. Moreover, it's not at all clear that our prison system has a well-thought out conception of "just" punishment at its core. I suspect the system rests on a hodge-podge of hardly thought out, politically driven practices that respond to panic and fear rather than being the product of deep philosophical reflection on the nature of just punishment. But that's where we come in right?
And to help us sort through these thorny issues, we invited Kara Dansky, Executive Director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. She is a terrific guests and has thought long and hard about the moral costs and benefits of our prison system. Tune in, I am sure you thoughts will be provoked.