In medical science doctors learned why the blunt instrument of antibiotics to fight bacterial infection backfires. Microbes, like all living organisms, meet the challenges and find a way to evade extinction.
Something eerily similar has become apparent in our use of prisons to punish law breakers. Instead of reducing crime we get more of it. Even longer sentences have been correlated with more criminal activity, not less. People predisposed to law breaking come out of prison with even stronger inclinations to commit crime. Sort of like an infectious agent, law breaking in general, seems to increase the more we try to smack it down with harsh prison sentences.
How could this be? Is it possible we have failed to understand the nature of what we are trying to deter? You won’t get an argument from me, or most everyone else, against jail for violently destructive people. Some characters just can’t be dealt with any other way. We lock them up for public safety. Yet, the evidence suggests it’s a fiction that the lock-up can be an effective way to deter crime by using it in all cases, or by making jail sentences longer.
In state after state, authorities are finding that the lock-up is not very effective at reducing crime and often promotes more of it. While my interest in the topic has more to do with the insanity of locking up drug users, the same lessons are being learned as to incarceration generally.
Governors and state legislators are realizing that, while no one who breaks the law should get a free pass, catch and cage often has a self-defeating effect. When people whose employment chances are wrecked by a prison sentence, they are less likely to be law abiding than before. A poor man, especially a poor man addicted to drugs, can easily justify to himself the committing of crimes. In his mind, it’s a matter of survival. And of course, we know that prisons are the best schools in which to learn crime skills, so we “graduate” a lot of offenders who are both more skilled and more motivated to commit crime than before.
Writing in The Hill, Former Republican Congressman J.C. Watts, noted progress in states recognizing that incarceration can be replaced with “mandatory programs that work with offenders to get drug treatment, address mental health concerns, or find a way to pay restitution to a victim,” and that these are all effective in decreasing the likelihood that an offender will return to criminal activity.
Even more encouraging is the evidence that, especially with with young violent offenders, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can reduce a person’s violent tendencies by up to 50%, depending on how skillfully the technique is applied.
Prison sentencing should be focused on the most dangerous and powerful criminals that wreak havoc on our communities. It should leave the low-risk, low-level offenders in the hands of counselors and doctors who can help bring out productive potential and speed up their rate of maturing. There are better ways, including CBT, to teach young people how to regulate their lives and why they will be better off for it. Courts can impose measures other than jail to get the offender’s attention. The blunt instrument of jail punishment should be avoided, wherever that can be done without risking public safety.
© Rights reserved to Dave Finch 7/31/2017
For information about better drug laws and policies, visit Reform Drug Policy Project.