A plan to make society safer and more just by abolishing prisons
The US is #1 in a bad category: incarceration rates. We spend $52B a year imprisoning 2.3M people. We spend about 2.5% of our entire GDP to imprison almost 1% of our population, and more people per capita than Iran, Russia, China, and every other country.
And if that weren’t enough, its not even working. Having so many people behind bars has proven to make our neighborhoods and country less safe.
The leading organization in fighting mass incarceration is Cut50, a project to cut our prison population by 50% lead by ACLU, Rebuild the Dream, and Just Leadership USA. Their work will have an incalculable impact on improving our country. However, when the prison population has quadrupled since 1980, 50% is just not enough. Today I’d like to propose a more radical solution: the complete abolishment of prisons.
“That’s crazy”— Abolishing slavery seemed crazy.
“Impossible!” — Anti-slavery supporters were also told the same.
“What would we do with all the prisoners? They don’t have education or skills. They are dangerous.” — Exactly the same things were said about freeing the slaves.
In the rest of this article I will peal back the layers of our prison population step by step and provide solutions and alternatives for each population until there are no more prisons and prisons are effectively abolished.
You’ll have to keep reading to see if, in fact, you too are a prison abolitionist.
1. Non Non Non’s
The next lowest hanging fruit for reducing our prison population are the Non’s — non-violent, non-serious, non-sexual offenders. Let’s just get them out of there already. Put them all on probation/parole or, better yet, just let them go. These people should not be spending even one night in jail.
Many of these Non’s are “Public order convictions”, meaning they disturbed the public order. For reference, in 1972 these accounted for 1.9% of the prison population in 1972, now it accounts for 13.8% of the prison population (procon.org). Just let these guys sweat it out one night in jail and then let them out, they aren’t actually hurting society.
2. Non-Violent Recidivists
It might be a surprise but 46% of prisoners are there due to non-violent breaking of their parole or probation. This is called recidivism and it represents the next low hanging fruit for reducing the prison population. The problem is not the parolee’s, the problem is the antiquated and sometimes darkly backward parole and probation system itself.
In an age where a parole officer could know the exact GPS location of each of her wards and be in direct text/phone communication with them at all times, why are we locking people back up again because they cross state lines, miss in person office visits, fail to pay their prison fines, or smoke pot? Jesus Christ!
Just by reforming parole and probation systems (without any change of behavior in our actual parolee’s) we can reduce a large chunk of our prison population overnight.
3. The Mentally Ill
In a 2006 Special Report, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimated that 705,600 mentally ill adults were incarcerated in state prisons, 78,800 in federal prisons and 479,900 in local jails — a total of 1,264,300 or roughly half of our total 2.6M prisoners. How can this be?
In 1959, nearly 559,000 mentally ill patients were housed in state mental hospitals. A shift to “deinstitutionalize” mentally ill persons had, by the late 1990s, dropped the number of persons housed in public psychiatric hospitals to approximately 70,000. (http://nicic.gov/mentalillness)
We have the opportunity today to use successful models from Scandinavia and around the world to rebuild our mental health services based on community-based services and public mental hospitals.
Through public mental health services reform, we can reasonably expect for the prison system to shed a large percentage of these seriously mentally ill prisoners.
We might spend a little more money on public mental health services, but … JESUS CHRIST! It’s worth it.
4. Drug Addiction is an Illness
Trafficking drugs is a crime, being addicted to drugs is an illness. Drug addiction (including alcoholism) can and should be treated and managed with medication, therapy, and monitoring.
65% of prisoners meet the medical criteria for substance abuse (Washington Post 2014). However, treatment for addiction in prisons is not available or substandard.
Another fantastic opportunity to improve the lives of some of the most downtrodden and lower our prison population.
5. (Not so) Violent Crimes and the Opportunity for Restorative Justice
Restorative Justice is a powerful and transformative process where victims and perpetrators have dialogue and perpetrators are required to make the victims and society whole rather than just rot in a cell.
Restorative Justice can be used effectively at any level of conflict all the way up to capital crimes. Let’s look at some not so violent crimes and brainstorm how Restorative Justice could provide superior outcomes in our justice system than punitive measures.
Should we incarcerate third degree burglaries where no one was physically harmed? What would be the restorative process with restorative consequences for these infractions of the law? There is returning the items or paying for them. A dialogue between the victim and perpetrators allows both understand how their actions affected the other. This helps the victim to heal psychologically, and helps the perpetrator to reform.
Should we incarcerate involuntary man slaughter and third degree murder (murder committed in a passion without premeditation)? How can the perpetrators of these crimes make society and their victim’s families whole again. A hysterical voice in our heads says “There is nothing they could do”. However, research shows that restorative justice, even in the cases of violence, can lead to consequences that are just without incarceration.
Should we incarcerate people who steal money through fraud and other “white collar” crimes. Fraudsters can make their victims whole through fines and liens on their future income. Through restorative justice, the community and the offender has the chance to examine and remedy the underlying causes and conditions that gave rise to the fraudulent behavior. Moreover, once caught once, fraudsters are flagged as potential repeat offenders. Why put them in jail?
7. Hard Cases — Sexual Criminals, First Degree Crimes, Repeat Offenders
So now I’ve cut away the non’s, and the ill, and I’ve suggested that Restorative Justice can be used for not so violent crimes.
Now we are down to the hard cases who commit first and second degree crimes, sexual crimes, or are repeat offenders.
But wait. We could just stop here. We would have already reduced our prison population by more than 3/4, saved the federal and state governments ~$35B in prison cost and countless more billions in police, lawyer, court, and other costs, repaired countless families, and made our country and neighborhoods safer.
However, with some creativity, I believe we can find ways to remove even these hard cases from prison and truly abolish the institution once and for all.
Here are some hard cases.
- Pedophilia and Child Molestation
- First Degree Murder (Premeditated)
- Repeat Offenders of any crime
How can we deal with these groups without resorting to physically confining them in prisons?
In the case of pedophilia and child molestation, there is a good case for treating physical attraction to children as a mental illness and creating treatment plans. Upon release from treatment these offenders would enter a geolocation specific parole and live and work away from children. In cases of multiple offenses, there are the options of requiring them to publicizing their disease, voluntary or required chemical castration, and only then if all of that was likely to fail some sort of institutionalization that would be similar to a medical hold and only used as an absolute last resort.
First degree murders could be required to pay a crippling fine and share their future income with the victim’s family and to the state. They might have to tell people they are a murderer. In the cases where the prosecution can establish that the murder is a sociopath, they could be institutionalized—again only in the absolute hardest cases.
Repeat offenders of minor crimes could be placed on a form of intense parole where they gain and lose money, privacy, and other privileges based on good and bad behavior. Their location is physically tracked and they have to check in by call and text three times a day with a parole system. A case manager could intervene in their life to remove the causes and conditions that lead to their repeat offenses.
Am I Evil or Sick?
Now you might be saying “Institutionalized? — that’s just prison!”. You are kinda right! However, we are saying and doing something very different. We are saying that pedophiles and sociopaths have terrible and unconscionable mental illnesses.
Jeffery Dahmer when he was sentenced said “I know I was sick or evil, or both. Now I believe I was sick.”
When we come to the very bottom of depravity and evil, we actually find not evil people, but people with terrible mental illnesses.
0. Legalization, Prevention, and Education
We’ve talked about existing prisoners, but let’s go back to the causes of the problem of imprisonment: crime. How do we reduce crime?
The fastest way to have fewer criminals is to have fewer crimes. The fastest way to have fewer crimes is to have fewer laws with less severe punishments. By reducing the number and extent of laws, and reducing their punishments and repealing three strikes and mandator minimum sentencing, we take the initial, simplest, and most promising step of reducing the prison population.
Crimes arise from predictable sets of causes and conditions. Research from the federal HeadStart program showed that early childhood education especially reduces criminality throughout life. Funding early childhood education doesn’t just sound great, it works, and its cheaper than prisons.
What’s this Gonna Cost?
The suggestions here might sound costly. Public mental health services, early childhood education, treatment of drug addicts, and reforming parole and probation systems is all going to cost money.
It turns out that all these improvements cost a whole hell of a lot less than it costs to imprison and keep imprisoned~2.6M people every year.