America is a country that loves to punish. We punish foreign nations. We discriminately punish our own. This week, The Economist rightfully flays the ongoing — and failed — notion of Wild West American Justice where the punishment rarely fits the crime.
IN 2000 four Americans were charged with importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes, in violation of a Honduran regulation that Honduras no longer enforces. They had fallen foul of the Lacey Act, which bars Americans from breaking foreign rules when hunting or fishing. The original intent was to prevent Americans from, say, poaching elephants in Kenya. But it has been interpreted to mean that they must abide by every footling wildlife regulation on Earth. The lobstermen had no idea they were breaking the law. Yet three of them got eight years apiece. Two are still in jail.
America is different from the rest of the world in lots of ways, many of them good. One of the bad ones is its willingness to lock up its citizens (see our briefing). One American adult in 100 festers behind bars (with the rate rising to one in nine for young black men). Its imprisoned population, at 2.3m, exceeds that of 15 of its states. No other rich country is nearly as punitive as the Land of the Free. The rate of incarceration is a fifth of America’s level in Britain, a ninth in Germany and a twelfth in Japan.
Why do we have this thirst for punishment?
There’s the “Rule of Law” and then there’s drowning in citations and infractions and felonies and misdemeanors that can build you up and bind you down for a long incarceration.
Why have we given up on the idea of prison being a place for reformation and reinsertion into mainstream society?
Should America be in the business of warehousing bodies in prisons?
Can we build enough prisons to hold and feed all the offenders among us?
If we really want to separate and punish — why do we only go halfway? Why provide recreation time and television and books in prison?
Why not lock down every single prisoner every single day? That would save on staff costs and remove prisoner-on-prisoner violence.
Why should the prisoners be given more than a cup of water and a slice of bread a day? Close the commissary.
Why provide lights or private toilets? Give them a skylight and a bucket. They can use their left hand for wiping.
The reformation movement in America has nothing to do with the prisoners — but rather in the way we treat them and expect them to behave while incarcerated.
If we treat the incarcerated less well than we would treat a stray dog in an alleyway — then we shouldn’t be surprised when prisoners released back to the street claw and bite us in their attempt to bind back into society.
I once saw a report that said that in Japan, prisoners are given a very small cramped cell and barely enough room to sit down — with a crime rate that is low to match.
I wonder if that would work in the US.
The Economist article makes a good point that we are over militia-ized in our just system of punishment. The article argues that the crime rate and incarceration numbers will actually go down if we loosen some of the laws and give judges more leeway in sentencing. Mandatory sentencing has led us into this judicial and incarceration mess.