Tuesday, October 21, 2008

American Prisoners

Estimate: 2,299,116 prisoners were held in federal or state prisons or in local jails as of June 30, 2007.
Estimate: US population as of Dec 2007 is 301,621,157 residents.

This means that about 1 out of every 132 residents in the US last year resided in a prison or a jail. The average prison sentence is about 3 years. If you live in anything other than a rural area, you pass many residents on your way to work every morning. At least one of the people you pass everyday has likely been incarcerated. These numbers seem severe, but what does this really mean? It means that there is a concentrated effort in our society to capture, and hold people in detention facilities. It also means that this capture program is successful. Extremely successful.

I refuse to believe that one out of every 132 US residents deserves to lose their freedom. There is no way to claim we have a responsible society if that many people need to be removed in order for it to function. This is a symptom of a greater, complicated cultural defect in our society. We want 'bad' people to disappear. This makes us feel safe. The out-of-sight/out-of-mind tactics might work when dealing with appetite control, but it is wholly unrealistic with regards to criminal justice. This is the equivalent of the 'time-out' strategy of child punishment. At some point we are going to have to admit to ourselves that incarcerated people don't actually disappear. When we don't or won't have a conversation about obvious problems in our society, we foster the culture of denial. This massive, concentrated effort to capture and hold citizens is, unfortunately, part and parcel of our culture of denial.
What we are tacitly approving is the idea that freedom from capture & detention is a priviledge to be earned and protected through administration of the criminal justice codes. This is a disturbing reality in our culture. The criminal justice codes are contained in multiple books. In fact, we have multiple books for each jusridiction. A person lives under the laws written in the federal criminal justice codes, under more laws written in their state's criminal justice codes, and at the very least under more laws written in their county's criminal justice codes. Most of the population also lives under a group of laws that is written in their city or town's criminal justice codes. It would be difficult (likely impossible) to read all the laws that govern a person's life in the span of a single lifetime.
It is assanine to assume that any of us knows all the laws we are beholden to. These unknown (and often changing) laws, however, can be used against us to take away the most precious thing any individual has - their freedom. I have been asking myself how this system exists for a long time and I still have no answer. I have heard many arguments for pieces and parts of this system, but taken as a whole the system is fatally flawed. We write millions of pages of statutes, then we expect each person to live explicitly by each and every word of each and every page of each and every statute. This is an impossible and untenable expectation to live up to!

Criminal justice & statute reform has to become part of our national conversation. We cannot continue this absurd practice of capturing and holding each other in detention facilities without cause. It is truly disgraceful, and, more importantly, is a symptom of our culture of denial that we have to come to grips with. I am sure there are more fertile minds out there who have decades of experience with criminals who have great ideas about how to reform the system. I hope to see them coming forward in the very near future to help us shape the conversation and enact real reform.

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