Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Prison Door

After a stay in a penitentiary (sometimes referred to among inmates as "crime school"), even after parole or probation--that is, after the convicted felon has supposedly "paid his debt to society," he still cannot vote, is barred from employment, and is restricted from living in some areas (and in other areas cannot, in fact, sign a lease). So the minions who are incarcerated represent only the tip of the outlawed iceberg.

There are three main reasons for this outrageously un-American situation: histrionic media, pandering politics, and elected judges.

Histrionic Media: News media want exciting "news" stories--they sell papers (or in this day and age, advertising Web pop-ups and their equivalents). This has been true at least since William Randolph Hearst invented Yellow Journalism over a hundred years ago. But, coiffed in academic ethics and rhetoric, histrionic media have had a renaissance over the past couple of decades due to business pressures to make money. The gist of the problem is that histrionic media use violent crime--especially crime that can be painted tinged with religious blasphemy, sexual titillation, or sanctimonious lack of ethics--to gather a crowd, attract interest, and send cash flowing to a media outlet's bottom line.

Pandering Politics: Couple such histrionic media with politicians' desires to get elected and re-elected, and a social mechanism for vindictive sentencing laws is created.

Elected Judges: And judges are commonly elected and re-elected based on their records of being "tough on crime," that is of dispensing lots of sentences, and long sentences.

The cure:

(1) Stop locking people up for non-violent crimes, which are typically the three so-called "victimless crimes" (crimes related to sex, drugs, and gambling), and also white-collar crimes in which typically no physical injury is done or even attempted.

(2) Legislate maximum (not minimum) sentences that are long enough to provide for rehabilitation but not so long as to alienate an individual from society and incapacitate social functioning.

(3) Turn penitentiary "crime school" into effective rehabilitation, education, retraining, and, in general, preparation to reenter and succeed in society.

(4) Develop post-incarceration follow-up that provides social, emotional, and vocational reintegration into society (with voting privileges, a job, a place to live, even healthful social and community connections).