Why are we Americans so eager to put each other in jail?
A new report from the Pell Center (Salve Regina University, Newport, RI) explores the contrasts between U.S. incarceration policy and how other countries handle jail time. The report paints a shocking picture of a country that imprisons people at a far, far higher rate than others do: About 7 in 1000 Americans are in prison, while our closest competitor among western industrial countries, the United Kingdom, imprisons about 1 in a thousand – one seventh of our rate. China doesn’t have a rate close to ours. Russia does, but is still “behind.” So are all the countries in Africa, South America and the rest of the world.
What do these facts say about us as a society?
There are lots of factors to consider, and the report addresses some of these, as does a recent article in the American Prospect: racial attitudes (African-Americans are incarcerated at rates far higher than whites); economic disparities (much greater here than in most of the industrialized world); so-called “three-strikes” laws that impose long, mandatory sentences; and particularly, strict drug laws, which account for a huge growth in the prison population in recent years. Another factor may be the influence of the private prison industry lobby, which of course profits from high incarceration rates.
But it is interesting to consider a more basic cultural question. Do Americans care more about solving a problem (such as crime) or about meting out “punishment”?
Certainly, part of America’s self-image, and our image abroad, has traditionally included ideas about being strong in the areas of business and science – and more generally, being focused on practical perspectives, a can-do attitude, getting things done. But the Pell Center paper points out facts that raise questions about whether the U.S. is really a “practical” nation.
The report focuses substantially on the issue of recidivism (people going back to jail repeatedly), along with the related question of how different prison systems see their function. Putting it simply, the American system is much more focused on the punishment angle, while other countries such as Norway focus much more on rehabilitation – trying to help prisoners get better integrated into the community so they are less likely to break laws in the future. Norwegian prisoners sometimes have flat-screen TVs and mini-fridges in their cells, and shared living rooms that create a family-like atmosphere – the idea being that a more normal, home-like prison experience may help reduce anti-social feelings and behavior. Of course, “rewarding” crime in this way seems unimaginable to Americans. But does it work?
The report points out two factors that are worth considering here. Recidivism rates are much higher in the U.S. than in Norway or elsewhere, and the costs of our prison approach (paid by taxpayers) are huge – about 80 billion dollars in 2010, according to the Justice Department, or about $30,000 per prisoner, per year. What if our (moral) commitment to punishing offenders is trumping our own (practical) self-interest – making our communities less safe, compared with rehabilitative approaches elsewhere that seem to reduce re-offending, and costing us more to boot?
This wouldn’t be the only issue where moral insistence seems to trump practicality in American policy-making. For instance, despite significant evidence that “needle exchange” programs reduce the transmission of HIV, our national ban on funding for such programs reflects a moral objection to “facilitating” drug use – even if it will save lives. Likewise, various community experiments show that offering homeless people a free home is cheaper than paying for the various emergency and other services they are otherwise likely to need more of – but can we imagine large numbers of Americans supporting the idea of “rewarding” homelessness with a free apartment?
What these issues and incarceration have in common is a sense that rewarding or punishing individual behavior is more important than solving social problems or saving money. It may even be hard for us Americans to believe that programs like needle exchanges, prison rehabilitation or free housing can lead to good results, no matter what the data says. Our focus on individual responsibility and individual “right and wrong” is more than a moral preference, it is a lens for understanding – or at least having the sense that we understand – how the world works.
In the end, our choices do a lot to shape the kind of society we want. Do we want less crime, less HIV, less homelessness and lower public spending overall, on prisons, emergency health services, and so forth? Or do we want to keep doing what’s “right”?