A better way to talk about prison reform
…an expensive way of making bad people worse.
Behind bars…sort of is one of the best descriptions of the myths of our modern imprisonment model I’ve read from traditional media.
The questions posed are ones that are raised by activists and those opposed to how our criminal justice system operates. Sadly, these questions rarely get substantive answers from policymakers.
- What’s the point of prison? (Punishment? Rehabilitation? Humiliation?)
- How do we define & measure a prison’s effectiveness?
- Has increased imprisonment lead to improved quality of life for those not in prison?
Re-framing the debate: Reduce, Remove, Remake
Americans are viewing more and more issues through the lens of their wallets. Perhaps this can work for rethinking prisons too.
Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, NJ, made progress on prison reform in his jurisdiction in large part by framing sensible incarceration policy as a matter of fiscal responsibility. The premise is that a city needs a consistent tax base to function, and people who are being warehoused are not paying taxes. It’s a great example of using a seemingly centrist frame (“fiscal responsibility”) to execute on a progressive agenda (“prison reform”). Prisons like the one featured in this article cost no more to construct, yet they save the cost of inmate humiliation & dehumanization. Those of us not in prison feel in that cost terms of recidivism.
Perhaps this can work on a broader scale if this is adjusted slightly. Instead of focusing solely on “let’s quickly make them productive taxpayers again,” we should broaden that to the following “Reduce, Remove, Remake” approach:
As a society responsible for the protection of its citizens, we will raise everyone’s quality of life by insisting that we reduce the motivations for crime, remove the policy loopholes and resource lapses that allow crime to persist, and remake our prison system into one that benefits society more than it costs it.
Doing this takes political courage on behalf of citizens, activists, and policymakers, but it can be done. Let’s transform our system away from being “an expensive way to make bad people worse” into “an investment in our shared security and well-being.”
One Love. One II.
Photo Credit: photoaskew on Flickr