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Prison for Punishment, Not Rehabilitation

Question: Is the American penal system still based on \r\nthe idea of rehabilitation?  

Robert Perkinson: No, \r\nthat’s a huge shift.  For 200 years since the birth of the Northeastern \r\nPenitentiary, the stated purpose of incarceration—if not the reality, \r\nmind you—was to grab hold of wayward citizens who had done wrong and to \r\nintervene in their lives in such a way that they would come out the \r\nother side of incarceration better than they had entered.  Now, this \r\nnever really worked out.  It was never really attempted to the full \r\nextent.  But because that was the stated purpose and because there was a\r\n kind of higher calling, in theory to corrections, it kind of mitigated \r\nthe extent to which vengeance and neglect and retribution could dominate\r\n the correctional experience.  

But that really has changed in \r\nthe last 40 years.  Rehabilitation, which reached it’s zenith under the \r\nfederal system and the California system in the ‘60’s came under attack \r\nby the left and more aggressively under attack from the right and has \r\nreally been squashed such that the purpose we have now for imprisoning \r\nso many people is on much more shaky ground, philosophically.  It’s to \r\nincapacitate people from committing crimes.  We say it’s for deterrence,\r\n but the evidence for deterrence is extremely weak.  People are deterred\r\n by the presence of car alarms or police. But, you know, before a drug \r\naddict breaks into your car to steal your stereo, they do not consult \r\nsentencing schedules to find out of the penalty in Maryland is harsher \r\nthan the penalty in Virginia.  And it’s silly of us to think that that \r\nwould happen.  The death penalty also doesn’t work as a deterrent.  So, \r\nit’s really incapacitation, but that’s a very expensive way to prevent \r\ncrime and help public safety and it doesn’t work very well.  

What\r\n the collapse of... for me in my work, with the collapse of the \r\nrehabilitative claim and the collapse of "corrections" as a framework \r\nfor thinking about incarceration has done has really brought into clear \r\nreview an alternative tradition of American punishment.  Not a tradition\r\n that has it’s genesis in Northern churches and Quaker meeting houses \r\nand genteel reform movements, as is the traditional story told about the\r\n North—and as a traditional story you’ll find in almost any history book\r\n about prisons.  But an alternative genealogy comes into view that \r\nreally stretches back through racially divisive politics, and it \r\nstretches back to segregation, it stretches back to convict leasing the \r\ntotally privatized incredibly brutal prison system that took root in the\r\n South after the Civil War and stretches ultimately back to slavery—and \r\nthat’s a tradition of intentional debasement, public vengeance, \r\nexploitation of labor, and racial control.  And in many ways, that, \r\nsadly, is the genealogy I think that gives us a more accurate sense of \r\nwhere we have ended up in the present than the trappings of \r\nrehabilitation that have dominated the historical literature.

Question:\r\n What can we do as a society to reduce the number of people in prison?

Robert\r\n Perkinson:
What we have done of course is the opposite.  In a \r\nsense, 40 years ago it’s as if we sat down and thought, okay, we have \r\nthis problem of crime and crime was going up in the 1960’s, let’s figure\r\n out the most expensive, most ineffective way to deal with crime that \r\nwill produce the most kind of social stratification and collateral \r\ndamage, and will undo a lot of the progress that’s going on towards \r\ncivil rights.  No one sat around and did that at the time, not even the \r\nhardest hardliners.  But that is in effect what we have done.  

For\r\n 40 years we have legislated by headline.  We have legislated by fear \r\nand campaign announcement.  We have not governed in the interest of \r\neffective public policy, but we have let partisanship trump common \r\nsense.  And we’ve been very tough on crime, but not very smart on crime \r\nat all.  And it’s going to take a lot of effort to undo it, but I think \r\nyou’re exactly right.  What needs to happen is we need to have as a \r\ncentral goal, not just try to make conditions of confinement more \r\nhumane, or help people who are released from prison – there’s like \r\n750,000 people a year who get out of prison, they’re tossed out on the \r\nstreet with stigma, without money, angrier and more alienated then they \r\nwere before.  They didn’t get much treatment behind bars, so there’s a \r\nlot of emphasis on re-entry right now, as well there should be.  

But\r\n in my view there really has to be an emphasis on reduction of this \r\nout-of-control, bloated government bureaucracy that is causing, and it’s\r\n like other types of government waste.  I mean if we have a contract to \r\nbuild a highway and it gets double-billed... or air marshals—take air \r\nmarshals for example, which it seems like now that the evidence is in \r\nhas been totally useless government program.  They haven’t committed any\r\n crime; there’s been an average of four arrests a year.  But it’s \r\nrelatively benign.  People get jobs, no one really is harmed by it and \r\nmaybe there’s a little bit of public safety, so it’s more or less – it’s\r\n wasteful, it’s irresponsible use of taxpayer money, but it’s not \r\nharming anyone.
\r\n
Prison is very different.  It actually is most – people think that \r\nit is responsible for maybe for 10% to 20% of reducing crime in the \r\nUnited States.  There are many better cost-effective ways to reduce \r\ncrime.  And we haven’t done them, and we need to start changing \r\ndirection.  There are signs that that’s happening.  And there needs to \r\nbe changes at every level of the system.  We need better indigent \r\ndefense, we need fairer trials, we need a shift in our approach to \r\naddiction, toward thinking about it as a medical problem entwined with a\r\n crime and poverty problem, rather than as a solely criminal justice \r\nissue.  We need to think about better ways to let people out of prison, \r\nespecially as they pass beyond their criminal prime.  

There is a\r\n promising piece of legislation in Congress right now that Senator Webb \r\nof Virginia is pushing to create a national criminal justice commission \r\nto look at the whole U.S. criminal justice system, especially the \r\nfederal, but also in the states.  At every stage, from arrest to parole,\r\n and to bring together experts from across disciplines and perspectives \r\nand to try to actually, for the first time in 40 years, look at this \r\nproblem in a sober-minded way rather than in a partisan, divisive way.  \r\nAnd that hasn’t happened since President Johnson’s crime commission in \r\n1967, which, if you go back and dust that off, is a pretty great \r\ndocument.  They had a whole laundry list of reforms.  The prison \r\npopulation was 300,000 in their day and they thought that was too high. \r\n They had a whole series of recommendations for enhancing public safety \r\nby preventing child abuse with more effective policing, with better \r\npublic housing, with afterschool programs, as well as more effective law\r\n enforcement techniques, and a better targeting of our criminal justice \r\nresources, which are so disproportionately devoted to drug crimes right \r\nnow and not toward the crimes we really tend to be afraid of.  So I \r\nthink that's promising.  

But in order for us to undo 40 years of\r\n warring on crime and 40 years of warring on drugs, it’s going to take a\r\n lot more than this sort of budget-driven minor reforms that many of the\r\n states are undertaking now.  And I think it’s going to take leadership \r\nfrom President Obama and Congress to make this an issue on par with \r\nhealth care or banking reform.  And it really should be.  I mean, in \r\nPresident Obama’s inaugural address, he said that we want to carry this \r\ngreat gift of freedom that American’s have carried over the course of \r\nour history, or at least tried to carry through the better chapters of \r\nour history and deliver it safely to future generations.  We cannot do \r\nthat.  We cannot carry the torch of freedom into the 21st century with \r\nhaving built the free world’s version of the Gulag... with 2.4 million \r\nAmericans behind bars with more than a million African-Americans having \r\nlost the vote, it fundamentally undermines our claims to democratic \r\nleadership in the same way segregation did during the cold war and the \r\nsame way I believe that slavery was the great contradiction to the \r\nfounding of the American democratic experiment.

Recorded April 14, 2010

We once hoped criminals would come out of prison better than they had entered. Not anymore.

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