The Prison System

21 May 2011

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. 

Comments (7)

Guest's picture


Saturday, May 21, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Way back there in the 1970s, British bluesman, Joh

Way back there in the 1970s, British bluesman, John Mayall, recorded an album which was ground-breaking for its time. There was no percussion track---no pounding drums; no tablas or bongos, congas or any such time signature insurance. It was called The Turning Point.
One song was called The Laws Must Change. Well, they did not. The prison system is an economic and sociological failure. Why? Because in order to change the prison system, we need to change some laws---to recognize that current law does not reasonably reflect current reality. Those who are self-avowed, law-abiding citizens should take careful note and ask themselves: who is running the store? Where is the money going and for what?

Guest's picture


Sunday, May 22, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Laws? How many laws are there, Can they even b

How many laws are there,
Can they even be counted,
And what do they all mean?
Oh and... where or how does freedom fit in?

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, May 25, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

If recidivism rates are any indication, we would h

If recidivism rates are any indication, we would have to conclude that the penal system (there's that S-word again)is badly in need of re-alignment, if not complete evacuation and replacement. Years ago, Bill Cosby did a short on discrimination, in which he said: 'just put 'em somewhere.' The short was a satire on bigots and bigotry, in which Cosby portrayed a redneck, down-home cretin offering a 'solution' to the race issue, but in stellar Cosby style, it was not about race differences, no, well---you'd have to see it if you have not already. Bill is a complex human being.
If the history we have been taught is true and the account is reasonably accurate, Australia began as penal colony. So, someone, somewhen---confronted with a need to deal with sociopaths---decided to put them somewhere. It must have saved money and inconvenience, and in the process, it appears to have created a different sort of civilization. Outbackers win a grudging respect from the rest of the world. A Japanese auto maker had the temerity to name one of its vehicles in honor of that rugged part of the Australian landscape.
Now, we are running out of real estate. At least that which is habitable by ordinary men and women. But sociopaths are not ordinary men and women are they? Perhaps we should look more seriously at putting them somewhere? Sci-fi movies have approached this idea numerous times. If you think I'm radical, see how you feel when some amoral misfit puts a bullet or a knifeblade in someone you love. But, don't get me started...
(oh, I have an old car made by that Japanese company. not bad.)

Mark Caplan's picture

Mark Caplan

Friday, May 27, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

According to the Philosophy Talk hosts, the U.S. h

According to the Philosophy Talk hosts, the U.S. has 2.5 million people behind bars; the European Union, only 600,000. Conclusion: What a shockingly unjust system we must have. Then again, the murder rate in the U.S. is 4.7 per hundred thousand; in the U.K. (Europe's most violent country), 1.5 murders per 100,000. Now the different lock-up rates between the U.S. and Europe look reasonable.
Perhaps a good future question to address on Philosophy Talk is why Americans are so much more inclined to shoot, stab, rob and rape one another than are citizens of other economically advantaged nations. A great guest would be a serial rapist who can speak first-hand about what motivates him to destroy the lives of innocent victims.
One point about the upward trend in imprisonment even while overall crime is trending lower: this is a purely anecdotal observation but it seems like the police catch more bad guys than previously thanks to surveillance cameras, DNA matching and other contributors.

Guest's picture


Monday, May 30, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Law and Disorder fits better, I think. Incarcerati

Law and Disorder fits better, I think. Incarceration has little deterrent effect when we consider the agenda of career criminals. Prison is merely a break from earning their living: they get room and board and their odds of survival are about equal to life on the street. Plus, they get tutelage from associates in the ways of street warfare and Effective Intimidation 101. Beating the system senseless---not such a bad rap, afterall?
Rehabilitation? Why is anyone still using that worn out platitude, Hm?

Guest's picture


Thursday, June 2, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

PUNISHMENT (revised) At my incredible one-on-o

PUNISHMENT (revised)
At my incredible one-on-one one minute talk with Derrida, I asked him ?while it is impossible to get to, at the end of deconstruction of meaning, what would be left?? D: ?I?m not really sure ? and don?t quote me on this ? but I think it is something like ?justice?.?
The show on Prison indicated that 1. none of the five purposes of imprisonment are achieved by incarceration satisfactorily, and yet 2. it continues anyway, actually making everything worse. So the question was asked, why even do it when it is so costly, and so harmful. (Revenge was not included as a legitimate goal of incarceration.)
See Derrida. Punishment for crimes we don?t like ?just feels right?; it is essentially human (?all too human?) in a Derridian way. It is a natural offshoot of the justice instinct; and of another human instinct, to say what is good, what is right, and to be confirmed that that is so.
As Dave the sage Carpenter points out, the prison system can?t be fixed in a vacuum: its ills are part of the greater failure of the society. To solve the prison system?s problems we have to solve the American system?s problems. Confiscate all guns. Free universal health care (paid for by taxes). Guaranteed national income. Free housing and free meals for the homeless. Amnesty for illegal immigrants who are working. State ownership of essential industries as public utilities, like: airlines, insurance, utilities, banking, gasoline. Ten year moratorium on all imports except oil, to build US manufacturing and farming back up. No more war. No more crippling and crippled politics.
To preserve my sanity, my wife has suggested that I not read the NewYorkTimes, nor listen to the news. She is right, and I have done this; the subject ?Prisons? touched on some forbidden areas, and I went nuts in a rant on the subject. I then asked the blog administer not to run the comment; this is my revised comment, still nutty, but not insulting, I hope. I also think it is time to be a bit more anonymous in these comments, so from now on, I will use the screen name ?mirugai.?
Dave, "time signature insurance" reveals the way poetry comes closer to "reality" than philosophy. And the groundbreaking Mayall album for me was the one that introduced Clapton and his "woman sounding" blues guitar.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, June 15, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Reply to Tim: I liked most of JM's music and had a

Reply to Tim: I liked most of JM's music and had a fairly complete collection at one time. However, Mr. Mayall never gained much respect in these United States. A pity, that. But at the time I became aware of 'British Blues', I was not living in these United States. The musicians and musicologists I knew listened to many styles and marched to their own drummer, whether he was there or not. Interesting and logical that you would compare musical time signature to poetry. Having created both, I have often done so myself.