Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Politics of Incarceration Will Have to Change When the Money Runs Out


Reducing incarceration rates is a hottopic this month as state governments desperately seek to decrease spending. It's an important and encouraging trend, but one that gets predictably sidelined when certain interests exert malicious influence over the process. This example from Indiana pretty much sums it up:
 http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/incarceration.jpg
A criminal justice reform bill that Gov. Mitch Daniels hoped would save more than $1 billion by reducing the number of people held in prison is headed to the Senate floor.

But the bill, approved 8-2 by a Senate committee Monday, has changed so much because of pressure from prosecutors that it's no longer clear whether it will save any money in the long term. [Indianapolis Star]

It should come as a surprise to no one that prosecutors -- who've worked tirelessly to create this problem -- would vigorously oppose any effort to fix it. Their livelihood revolves around the concept that it's good to have lots of people locked up, and that we're lucky to have these bankruptcy-inducing incarceration costs because if we didn't, it would mean all those bad people were still on the streets forcing us to buy drugs from them.

Still, it's generally getting easier for our political culture to agree in principle with the notion that we're keeping far too many people behind bars at far too great a cost. That much is obvious, but the path that brought us here has also resulted in a massive criminal justice infrastructure that's become self-aware and lobbies aggressively on its own behalf. Accordingly, we've now entered a bizarre debate in which almost everyone feigns agreement about what must be done, but they just aren't actually doing it.
Obama's federal drug control budget maintains a Bush-era disparity devoting nearly twice as many resources to punishment as it does for treatment and prevention, despite his saying less than three weeks ago that, “We have to think more about drugs as a public health problem," which requires "shifting resources." [LEAP]

It's a stark hypocrisy, made possible in part by the fact that Obama's rhetoric of reform inevitably rings louder in the press than the reality of boring budgetary figures. For all the progress that's been made towards popularizing the idea that our jails aren't the best place for many who currently reside there, it's impossible to carve out cost-savings without shrinking the output of the factory that our criminal justice system has become. This requires admitting that certain practices are harmful, or at least unnecessary, and ultimately eliminating jobs right and left within a powerful industry that will threaten the public with rape and murder if they don’t get their way.

For better or worse, real progress towards resolving this enormous mess will take place not because politicians and prison profiteers voluntarily admit the error of their ways. It will happen when there literally exists no other option. When the inevitability of ever-increasing, plainly unsustainable incarceration costs becomes simply unbearable, the alternative approaches to which we've paid considerable lip service over the years will finally be given a chance to deliver on their promise. That's what has to happen, and when it does, even the most self-interested scumbags in this debate will eventually be found claiming disingenuously that they supported reform all along.

4 comments:

  1. Arguable, but your conclusion is decisive.

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  2. the US is soo fucked up another few years and this will be a very scary place to live

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  3. "...certain interests exert malicious influence..." That pretty much sums it up. The prison and prosecution industry care about nothin more than sustaining the system they have built.

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  4. War on drugs is stupid.. of course a genuine american idea.

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