One of the thorniest problems facing any society is the question of what to do with transgressors. Obviously, the more complicated a culture becomes, the more factors come into play in trying to figure out what to do with those who choose not to “play by the rules.”
The question of punishment is always on my mind around this time of year as I feel a slight sting every time I consider how much of our tax money is poured into America’s penal system.
According to statistics appearing in Robert Ferguson’s recent book “Inferno: Anatomy of American Punishment,” we’re not getting our money’s worth. If Ferguson’s numbers are correct, federal, state and local governments collectively spend $80 billion per year to oversee America’s prison population. One in nine state employees has a job connected with the states’ penal systems. California alone has more inmates in prison than France, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands and Singapore — combined. In the past 30 years, the average length of prison sentences in America have almost doubled with nearly 140,000 inmates serving life sentences.
Ferguson reports that Louisiana’s prisons incarcerate one of every 86 of the state’s citizens. This is three times higher than the Islamic Republic of Iran, seven times higher than the People’s Republic of China and 10 times higher than the incarceration rate in Germany. What happens to these prisoners once they get out? More than two-thirds (67.5 percent) commit new crimes after their release.
Clearly, there is a gross disconnect somewhere. In the United States of America, the strongest, freest, richest country on earth, something has gone very wrong if so many of our citizens are in prison and keep going back once they’re out.
No doubt there are powerful societal forces at work promoting and reinforcing the types of behavior that are likely to land someone in the penitentiary. Members of certain gangs gain status and prestige by “doing time.” In fact, for some groups, initiates can’t join unless they’ve “been inside.”
Private prisons and unionized correctional workers are financially vested in keeping the prison populations high. But private prisons and unions don’t cause people to commit crimes. They may benefit from, but they don’t cause repeat offenders.
All the experts agree explanations for this growing calamity are varied, difficult and debatable. But there are certain observations available to us all that might shed some light on at least part of the problem.
Is there a trend during the past 30 years corresponding to this glut of lawbreakers filling our prisons? At the risk of oversimplification, let me draw your attention to a quote from Louis Brandeis: “Our government … teaches the whole people by example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”
During the past 30 years, as our prisons overflow, we have witnessed our government forfeiting its moral claim to demand faithful obedience from our citizens. We have heard our presidents telling shameless lies. We has seen them convicted of contempt of court. We have seen them behave as if laws may be disregarded if those laws become inconvenient. We have seen the agencies of our government betray the people’s trust and become private preserves where the people’s resources may be squandered and where the exercise of the people’s constitutional rights are trivialized and punished. We have seen the chief law enforcement officer of the United States employ the powers of his office to shield the disgraceful behavior of lawbreakers.
We have seen the machinery of America’s criminal justice system employed to imprison people for marijuana use when certain presidents, themselves, admit to having engaged in and gotten away with the same behavior.
Time and again, we had been disappointed to discover that public servants have engaged in blatant violation of the tax laws only to receive a “slap on the wrist” when their behavior is discovered. We have grown so accustomed to lies, deceit, violations of law from our government representatives that there is little outrage when a new scandal breaks and such outrage as there is vaporizes within hours if not days.
It doesn’t take a gifted social critic to realize there is an accelerating evaporation of concern for people’s rights. Unfortunately, this appears to be a “top-down,” and “bottom-up” simultaneous phenomenon.
As you have no doubt discerned from this column, it’s my opinion that the answer to this nation’s growing prison population is not confined to that population. The thugs, crooks, liars cheats and cads have plenty of “respectable” examples to follow. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.