An article in this morning’s Age demonstrating why imprisoning people convicted of crimes should be a last resort – because it’s very ineffective at rehabilitating people (particularly compared with other more constructive (and cheaper to the public) sentencing options like community based orders or intensive corrections orders) – reminds me about a post and video I saw last week about how the American system of “randomised draconianism” actually makes the problem worse:
UCLA Professor of Public Affairs Mark Kleiman is “angry about having too much crime and an intolerable number of people behind bars.” The United States is home to five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, yet, says Kleiman, our high incarceration rate isn’t making us safer.
In his book, “When Brute Force Fails,” Kleiman explains that, when it comes to punishment, there is a trade-off between severity and swiftness. For too long the U.S. has erred heavily on the side of severity, but if we concentrate enforcement and provide immediate consequences for law-breakers, Kleiman says we can both reduce the crime rate and put fewer people in prison.
The video is worth watching, particularly for law-and-order types who think the solution to crime is to keep ratcheting up the severity of sentences. Of course, that that doesn’t work is hardly news to those of us who deal with the courts day-in, day-out, and see first-hand which sentencing approaches work in reducing crimes and which don’t (although, sadly, the US doesn’t have the same non-custodial options we have here, so the professor doesn’t address them).
What was news to me, since we haven’t quite gone all the way down this road yet, was a link in the comments to the above post regarding how private prisons are now a source of cheap, effectively slave labour on which the US government now depends:
…the federal prison industry produces 100% of all military helmets, ammunition belts, bullet-proof vests, ID tags, shirts, pants, tents, bags, and canteens. Along with war supplies, prison workers supply 98% of the entire market for equipment assembly services; 93% of paints and paintbrushes; 92% of stove assembly; 46% of body armor; 36% of home appliances; 30% of headphones/microphones/speakers; and 21% of office furniture. Airplane parts, medical supplies, and much more: prisoners are even raising seeing-eye dogs for blind people.
Combine that with the recently exposed scandal in Pennsylvania where judges were sending children to jail to receive kickbacks from the local private prison operator, and you have to doubt whether introducing a motive like profit into the justice system (which is what privatising sections of it necessarily involves) can ever be a good idea.
But it is just what happens when consumers of hysterical tabloid media believe what they’re told and demand politicians send more people to jail. Even though it doesn’t work in reducing crime as well as other sentencing options. Even though it is a lot more expensive. Even though it pushes us down a path where what happens to citizens is corrupted by the interests of those who make money from them being locked up. Even though once governments become reliant on cheap labour and outsourcing their responsibilities it becomes almost impossible for them to ever undo that damage.
I really hope Australians take a good hard look at the US approach some in our most pervasive media suggest we emulate, and observe closely where it leads – before it’s too late.