Lehrer’s prison-reform proposals

In an article titled “Responsible Prison Reform,” at National AffairsEli Lehrer sets out an impressive agenda for prison reform, which, in a country with “roughly 5% of the world’s population and nearly a quarter of its inmates,” is desperately needed. He does, however, begin by noting that the massive upswing in the prison population since the ’70’s has dramatically lowered (violent?) crime rates: “By any measure, nearly every neighborhood, city, and state in the United States has become safer over the past two decades.” But the costs, socially and fiscally, are simply unacceptable. Lehrer thinks that mainstay conservative “principles,” among them an emphasis on law-breakers’ personal responsibility, in fact underly his reform proposals.

Emphasizing personal responsibility doesn’t have to mean dismissing social responsibility — as Lehrer notes, “children who grow up in homes without two parents, whose parents are not closely attached to the work force, and who drop out of school are much more likely to commit crimes than are those raised in more stable environments.” I take it that his emphasis on personal responsibility is pragmatic rather dogmatic — given that “social responsibility” approaches to the problem of criminality “ultimately…failed” (he doesn’t really justify this claim, so far as I can tell, but one stray allusion suggests to me that he has in mind the 1960s-1970s’ “War on Poverty,” and its most abysmal results),  focusing punishment and rehabilitation efforts on individuals is overall better strategy.

However, our current personal-responsibility-centered approach has also been mostly disastrous. “Nationwide,” Lehrer reports, “the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated total spending on prisons and jails in 2010 to be nearly $50 billion, or nearly $500 a year for every American household.” And the social costs are far higher than that, especially among “African-Americans, [who] comprise about 13% of the population, [but] make up nearly 40% of this country’s inmates.”

In his judgment, then, “Policymakers thus face a paradox: Locking up lots of people has contributed to a significant drop in crime that, at least from a political perspective, has helped to “solve” a once-major social problem. But incarceration is overused, expensive, and offensive to democratic values. Simply opening the prisons and releasing many people who have been convicted of crimes, however, would almost certainly return crime rates to intolerably high levels. This leaves another course of action: reform that emphasizes individual responsibility and continues to use incarceration as an important policy tool, but that changes the frequency and length of prison stays and vastly improves the circumstances and conditions within prison walls.”

Lehrer proposes re-orienting punishment toward rehab programs for addicts, and work programs for all. As he notes, “by most estimates, fewer than one-third of offenders hold full-time jobs at the time of their arrests — and instead live off of criminal activity or government transfer programs.” Further, he suggests shortening mandatory minimum sentences: “Particularly for non-violent offenders and people who commit minor acts of violence while using drugs and alcohol, relatively short stays away from society can serve as a shock and a strong incentive to shape up without giving them time to be drawn into the prison underworld or even forcing them to quit their jobs, if they have them.” And, best of all, he suggests that many inmates might released under stricter surveillance regimes than you find most places today: “Rather than having ex-offenders check in with parole or probation officers periodically and take scheduled drug and alcohol tests, transition programs should increasingly involve random, unannounced home visits, subject ex-offenders to round-the-clock electronic monitoring, require them to take random drug tests, and offer them swift and certain punishment for slip-ups.”

Lehrer also suggests a number of reforms to the culture of prisons. First, we shouldn’t strip prisoners of privileges such as weight-rooms, television, and decent food, because “trying to legislate in minute detail exactly what prisoners should and shouldn’t do ties the hands of corrections officials and reduces their ability to discipline inmates humanely. In the end, this helps strengthen the power of prison gangs.” Further, Lehrer suggests that prisons need to draw more deeply on the reforming power of religious communities: “Faith offers both the most important antidote to prison brutality and a true recognition of prisoners’ humanity. In its best and highest forms, it can serve as the basis for restorative justice

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