Law in Contemporary Society
I thought we quickly moved through an incredibly complex topic yesterday. Maybe we'll talk more about it this afternoon. But challenging the Prison Industrial Complex is not an new idea, although it's often characterized as radical. Is it though? Will it ever fit on a 3x5 card? The prison system and "criminal justice" generally in the American sense is entangled in so many of our social woes, fears and deeply structural inequities.

I'm not one for phobias, but my biggest fear in life is incarceration-- and not because of I'm thinking about some risky, questionable behaviors. It's because I've had the "privilege" to walk in and out of one several times and each time the sense of relief and indignity was all too palpable. Prisons have a silencing effect. Not simply marginalized, but silenced. I'm wondering what any of you think would fit on that 3x5 card. Some of my thoughts:

  • end racist practices in the "justice system"
  • restructure penal schemes with a focus on restorative justice and rehabilitation
  • allow better visitation/monitoring
  • cease censorship of studies/exposes about prison populations
  • equalize programs/opportunities for incarcerated women

it seems so much would have to change on the "outside" before any of it is reflected within. And if you don't think prisons should change, why not? Sorry for the unrefined nature of this post, I haven't eaten lunch yet. -- MiaWhite - 24 Jan 2008

I think drug convictions and the entire "War on Drugs" need to be restructured. Although usage rates are identical between black and whites, blacks are arrested at a much higher rate. This is both a result and cause of increased police presence in black and minority neighborhoods. Thus higher and higher incarceration rates for minorities (particuarly blacks) are driven by the war on drugs. This high level of incarceration continues to uproot the social capital in these communities.

I'm not sure of the solution. I think it begins by changing the way we punish drug users (not dealers). Non-incarceration for drug use will help to slow the downward spiral in these communities.

Note this is only one solution. I think there are many problems with our justice system, most of which are based on racially-biased incarceration.

-- AndrewHerink - 24 Jan 2008

[added some formatting to original post] -- IanSullivan - 24 Jan 2008

Yeah what is this "war on drugs" thing anyway? How long have we been fighting it, and in what way ARE we fighting it? I spent a few months doing data entry of criminal records and I can tell you that most of the people going out are coming right back. Prison does nothing to solve drug addiction and nothing to solve poverty - two of the main reasons people find themselves in prison (over and over again). I seriously believe that some people are in situations so desperate that crime is actually the most rational response.

Our prison system is clearly a failure. We should expose them (as you said Mia) and open them up to public scrutiny. I think we should assume we know nothing (fair bet really) and take a fresh look at the situation - ask ourselves who ends up in prison and why? Then be willing to consider new solutions, and my guess is that we ought to focus our attention on "rehabilitation" much more than we are now.

Of course, the other possibility is that the prisons aren't failing at all - they just aren't aiming at correction. Are prisons just a place to throw away segments of society that might be a problem for institutions in power?

-- ErikaKrystian - 29 Jan 2008

The idea that the prisons aren't necessarily failing but just aren't really trying to correct and rehabilitate prisoners is an idea that I agree with. Often times, those that come out of jail and are ready for a new start have their enthusiasm curbed by society's reaction to them. Many of them aren't able to "start anew" and feel disenfranchised with the whole system--which sometimes leads them back to behavior that put them into prison in the first place.

The war on drugs is a huge crock in my opinion, and generally serves as a less clandestine way to continue to put more black males in jail. The differences in the punishments that white and black drug users receive (ie, the differences in sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine) lead me to no other conclusion.

-- NicoleMedham - 29 Jan 2008

There is a blog called Grits for Breakfast that is written by a criminal justice advocate from Texas who has suggested a few ideas for the Texas legislature that I thought were sensible enough to share. I’m not sure how to block-quote in twiki and what the citation rules are, but if anyone knows feel free to edit this as appropriate.

1. Train 10,000 new teachers to perform individual training with dyslexic children, and increase funding for early testing for dyslexia. That's the low end of an estimate for how many are needed. Dyslexics make up 10% of children who are tested but 30% of Texas inmates, and illiteracy is a key indicator increasing the likelihood of imprisonment.

2. Create new programs to support children of incarcerated parents, including mentoring, tutoring, counseling, part-time jobs and access to social services. Without intervention, children of incarcerated parents are 6-8 times more likely than their peers to wind up in prison. Fund the programs that exist, including privately operated charities if they're effective and accountable, plus create new ones modeled on successful programs in Texas and elsewhere.

3. Cut probation lengths in half. Most probationers who re-offend do so in the first two years, the majority of those (says Tony Fabelo) within the first eight months. Texas has the longest probation lengths in the nation. Reducing them would reduce caseloads so probation officers could increase supervision during that most-important early period. (This will require revamping funding for probation departments, which are currently paid by the head.)

7. Allow local governments to operate syringe exchange programs to promote personal responsibility, reduce the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C and provide greater opportunities for outreach to hardcore drug users.

On this point, note the difficulties that Texas lawmakers are currently having in getting DAs to accept even small pilot needle-exchange programs. Additionally, even though such programs seem to be oriented more towards the health and safety of drug users and their families (a noble cause in itself), I bet there could also be substantial long-term benefits in terms of crime prevention that result from the act of introducing drug users to social workers in such a manner.

10. Fund re-entry programs designed to help ex-offenders get and keep a job, housing and stay out of trouble when they get out of prison, especially for the first 1-2 years.

-- VishalA - 29 Jan 2008

Regarding this last point #10, it is beyond me why more effective re-entry programs and assistance are not used. Even for those who believe that the focus of prisons is 'incapacitation' as opposed to 'rehabilitation', the grossly inadequate nature of re-entry programs flies in the face of whatever benefits society was hoping to achieve with the prison terms.

Even with all the recent press and discussion on falsely convicted offenders, - a whole other issue of course - while there is 'outrage' or at least focus on the lack of aid offered as these prisoners re-enter society (in the context of what the legal system has deprived them of), there is shockingly little mention of the fact that traditional re-entry programs are so lacking.

-- CarinaWallance - 30 Jan 2008

There is even less mention of the fact that incarceration makes those incarcerated more likely to commit crimes/be violent. The solution to a problem that one knowingly creates is not to spend more resources solving it; it is to stop creating it. Obviously, the assumption is that anything we gain from incarceration is less valuable than the costs of incarceration and effective "re-entry," but outside of the "that guy (or increasingly more frequently, girl) deserves it" argument, there doesn't seem to be much weight behind the push for incarceration over - for example - treatment of offenders.

-- AdamCarlis - 30 Jan 2008

It’s nice to see some relevant ideas about how to approach the crime rate/incarceration rate plaguing the U.S. To tie into Vishal's point #1 above, I believe the problems that lead to incarceration often start very early in one's life, and they are often tied into the way society views one's academic performance abilities in the school setting, abilities that oftentimes get muddled into views of one's social performance and worth as a person. Having worked in the public school context with teenagers who are labelled “emotionally handicapped” and “learning disabled” (several of whom spent time in the local juvenile detention center), and having a child (now 19) who struggles with some of these issues, my experience has lent two additional observations:

Many in society still look at those who are labelled learning or emotionally disabled as deficient/defective. Until the dumb/bad associations with current labels and the labels themselves fade and are replaced not with the label “different,” but no label (hey, we’re all different, right?), then those who do struggle with dyslexia or other learning disabilities feel apart from and less than the rest of society in this way, and the subtle effect on one’s self-esteem is insidious, far-reaching, and often permanent.

Those who feel isolated from the rest of society because of their inability to “fit-in” in the school/academic context are more likely to express themselves in more impulsive ways, because they feel they have less to lose in terms of social approval and academic approval (hey, when you’re at the lower end of society’s measuring stick on these issues, and your efforts to catch up with others fail, then why try?) In other words, why think about the consequences when there seem to be a different set of consequences for you than for others.

Poverty, lack of resources, and tuned-out parents dealing with their own problems (oftentimes in a divorce setting) also exacerbate the situation.

-- BarbPitman - 30 Jan 2008

 

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