"We've got to decide who we're mad with, and who we're afraid of."Epps' quote isn't original (I first heard that line from former Texas House Corrections Chairman Ray Allen back in 2003, and I'm sure he stole it from somebody else), but it's surely apropos. One caveat: It's hard to stomach the assertion that the "Throw 'em in jail" enthusiasm was limited to the '70s and '80s. Shannon Edmonds of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association estimates that the Texas Legislature created 50 new crimes in their 82nd session, including expanding life without parole to non-capital crimes and even criminalizing lies about fishing (which I always thought was part of fishing). There's a long way to go before politicians learn to curb their impulse to exploit anger and fear for political gain through "tuff on crime" stances, but the economic crunch combined with sensible, conservative views like those of Mr. Sagan offer the best chance in the near term of teaching them that lesson.
This quote, from Mississippi Corrections Department Commissioner Chris Epps, appeared in a recent on-line Time article that described changes in the state's prison policies. Mississippi is at a point where it must choose between the "Throw 'em in jail!" enthusiasm of the 1970s and '80s and the "OMG, we're broke!" reality of today. Texas could stand to take the hint.
It's expensive to jail people. Not only is there a direct cost to society to build, staff and maintain prisons, there is also a steep and enduring loss of productivity by those incarcerated, both while they are in prison and once they are out.
America's justice system, with all of its leaks, breakdowns and disappointments, is still a considerable social juggernaut. When we break laws we run an excellent chance of getting caught, and once caught we face a pitiless system in which those who are appointed or elected to enforce our laws have dwindling latitude in how they treat those whom the system convicts. Therefore it should be obvious to everyone that it is in America's best interests to make illegal only those behaviors that constitute a danger to us all and not just an aggravation to some of us.
Incarceration, then, should be the state's last resort in dealing with the dangerous.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
'Anger, fear spur prison-building boom'
In the Amarillo Globe-News, Greg Sagan has a column urging restraint in incarceration policies in the face of gaping budget shortfalls with the same title as this post. His article opens quoting a corrections official from Mississippi: