Prison, Anyone?

Margotlog: Prison, Anyone?

Back up to opportunity, and even further to need: nobody needs to tell us that the economy is sluggish at best and many people are without work. Fast forward to a few days ago, driving on the frontage road beside Highway 94 from Saint Paul toward Minneapolis. My eyes are clouded with drops: I’ve been to the eye doctor, but the figure of a man with a sign is unmistakable. I know what he wants. Though I’m in the middle lane, I check behind–no cars coming. So I veer over to the median, and again pause for the stoplight.

He is a largish white man with a pasty face and tan clothes, and he’s holding a hand-lettered sign. Months ago I bought 3 food cards from a local chain near my house because I was being solicited on the street. These seemed a good alternative to handing out cash–and maybe being accosted for more or maybe fueling a drug habit. A good way to help someone truly hungry.

As I lowered the window and held out the card, he knew immediately what I meant and came to take it with a thank you. Within seconds, I saw him walk behind my car: someone else had done the same. Then the driver in front also offered a contribution. I was amazed. It struck me that this was an example of community spirit, not to mention action. What I had done inspired others. Had I not pulled over to the closer lane, extended my arm and given the man a token of help and concern, others probably would not have acted either.

A small, public act of concern and yes, even love breeds the same.

Yesterday two writers confirmed this notion in startling ways. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the civilized world! Whereas the long-term percent of violent criminals ranges around 100 per 100,000, the U.S. is imprisoning around 700 per hundred thousand black men and 400 per hundred thousand whites. Many of these are crimes of possession–marijuana possession. And many are created via plea bargaining, which means that instead of bringing the case to a trial, the apprehended person bargains with officials for a supposedly reduced sentence.

What’s wrong here, according to these two writers–Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, and Michael O’Donnell in The Nation–is complex, but not irremediable. First, white collar crime–the jerks that work Ponzi schemes and defraud innocent people–along with the users of mild dope are being put in prison when they are not likely to be remediated. Better, in fact, to take away the defrauder’s bank accounts and send them off to do community service for years. Better to legalize marijuana!

Here are some other pointed observations both writers make: the U.S. criminal justice system is out of sync with the actual crime rate which has been falling remarkably since the 1960s. This decline is not the result of imprisoning more “criminals.” In fact as the crime rate has dropped, the number of incarcerated individuals has hugely risen.

Crime has been reduced through small, consistent, city-wide efforts to break up locations and possibilities for crime: concentrating police in areas known for drug dealing. Getting the criminals off the streets where those who might want to participate can’t find them.

In a wide-sweeping criticism of the U.S. criminal justice system, the two writers follow a landmark book written by Harvard law professor (recently deceased): The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz. Stuntz traces this disaster all the way to the Bill of Rights which he compares with the French Rights of Man. Written around the same time, the two documents diverge significantly: The French emphasizes justice; the American emphasizes procedure. Procedure is faceless. Justice is not. Writes Gopnik, “The obsession with due process and the cult of brutal prisons…share an essential impersonality. The more professionalized and procedural a system is, the more insulated we become from its real effects on real people.”

Scroll up to my incident with the hungry man at the stop sign. Because one person treated him humanely, recognized and tried to alleviate a need, others were moved to compassion to offer help as well. We need to revive trial by jury, argue these writers, following Stuntz. And not simply any jury, but a jury composed of people from the neighborhood where the supposed “crime” was committed. Trial by a jury of our peers, who can trace back whatever crime we’ve supposedly committed to a block, a house, a family. Who recognize that because a fourteen-year-old is caught on the street with marijuana, that kid will not go on to murder someone.

Our incarceration rate is much higher than was the rate of Soviet people sent to the Gulags in Stalin’s time. We are outstanding for the number of teenagers who are serving life sentences! Our prisons are brutal and very very full, run by corporations who voice dismay that their livelihood may dry up. Something is terribly wrong here!

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