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Robert Perkinson

Robert Perkinson is the author of  "Texas Tough: The Rise of a Prison Empire," a history of American punishment that focuses on the country’s most incarcerated and politically influential state,[…]

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

Question: Is the American penal system still based on rnthe idea of rehabilitation?  

Robert Perkinson: No, rnthat’s a huge shift.  For 200 years since the birth of the Northeastern rnPenitentiary, the stated purpose of incarceration—if not the reality, rnmind you—was to grab hold of wayward citizens who had done wrong and to rnintervene in their lives in such a way that they would come out the rnother side of incarceration better than they had entered.  Now, this rnnever really worked out.  It was never really attempted to the full rnextent.  But because that was the stated purpose and because there was arn kind of higher calling, in theory to corrections, it kind of mitigated rnthe extent to which vengeance and neglect and retribution could dominatern the correctional experience.  

But that really has changed in rnthe last 40 years.  Rehabilitation, which reached it’s zenith under the rnfederal system and the California system in the ‘60’s came under attack rnby the left and more aggressively under attack from the right and has rnreally been squashed such that the purpose we have now for imprisoning rnso many people is on much more shaky ground, philosophically.  It’s to rnincapacitate people from committing crimes.  We say it’s for deterrence,rn but the evidence for deterrence is extremely weak.  People are deterredrn by the presence of car alarms or police. But, you know, before a drug rnaddict breaks into your car to steal your stereo, they do not consult rnsentencing schedules to find out of the penalty in Maryland is harsher rnthan the penalty in Virginia.  And it’s silly of us to think that that rnwould happen.  The death penalty also doesn’t work as a deterrent.  So, rnit’s really incapacitation, but that’s a very expensive way to prevent rncrime and help public safety and it doesn’t work very well.  

Whatrn the collapse of... for me in my work, with the collapse of the rnrehabilitative claim and the collapse of "corrections" as a framework rnfor thinking about incarceration has done has really brought into clear rnreview an alternative tradition of American punishment.  Not a traditionrn that has it’s genesis in Northern churches and Quaker meeting houses rnand genteel reform movements, as is the traditional story told about thern North—and as a traditional story you’ll find in almost any history bookrn about prisons.  But an alternative genealogy comes into view that rnreally stretches back through racially divisive politics, and it rnstretches back to segregation, it stretches back to convict leasing the rntotally privatized incredibly brutal prison system that took root in thern South after the Civil War and stretches ultimately back to slavery—and rnthat’s a tradition of intentional debasement, public vengeance, rnexploitation of labor, and racial control.  And in many ways, that, rnsadly, is the genealogy I think that gives us a more accurate sense of rnwhere we have ended up in the present than the trappings of rnrehabilitation that have dominated the historical literature.

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

Robertrn Perkinson:
What we have done of course is the opposite.  In a rnsense, 40 years ago it’s as if we sat down and thought, okay, we have rnthis problem of crime and crime was going up in the 1960’s, let’s figurern out the most expensive, most ineffective way to deal with crime that rnwill produce the most kind of social stratification and collateral rndamage, and will undo a lot of the progress that’s going on towards rncivil rights.  No one sat around and did that at the time, not even the rnhardest hardliners.  But that is in effect what we have done.  

Forrn 40 years we have legislated by headline.  We have legislated by fear rnand campaign announcement.  We have not governed in the interest of rneffective public policy, but we have let partisanship trump common rnsense.  And we’ve been very tough on crime, but not very smart on crime rnat all.  And it’s going to take a lot of effort to undo it, but I think rnyou’re exactly right.  What needs to happen is we need to have as a rncentral goal, not just try to make conditions of confinement more rnhumane, or help people who are released from prison – there’s like rn750,000 people a year who get out of prison, they’re tossed out on the rnstreet with stigma, without money, angrier and more alienated then they rnwere before.  They didn’t get much treatment behind bars, so there’s a rnlot of emphasis on re-entry right now, as well there should be.  

Butrn in my view there really has to be an emphasis on reduction of this rnout-of-control, bloated government bureaucracy that is causing, and it’srn like other types of government waste.  I mean if we have a contract to rnbuild a highway and it gets double-billed... or air marshals—take air rnmarshals for example, which it seems like now that the evidence is in rnhas been totally useless government program.  They haven’t committed anyrn crime; there’s been an average of four arrests a year.  But it’s rnrelatively benign.  People get jobs, no one really is harmed by it and rnmaybe there’s a little bit of public safety, so it’s more or less – it’srn wasteful, it’s irresponsible use of taxpayer money, but it’s not rnharming anyone.
rn
Prison is very different.  It actually is most – people think that rnit is responsible for maybe for 10% to 20% of reducing crime in the rnUnited States.  There are many better cost-effective ways to reduce rncrime.  And we haven’t done them, and we need to start changing rndirection.  There are signs that that’s happening.  And there needs to rnbe changes at every level of the system.  We need better indigent rndefense, we need fairer trials, we need a shift in our approach to rnaddiction, toward thinking about it as a medical problem entwined with arn crime and poverty problem, rather than as a solely criminal justice rnissue.  We need to think about better ways to let people out of prison, rnespecially as they pass beyond their criminal prime.  

There is arn promising piece of legislation in Congress right now that Senator Webb rnof Virginia is pushing to create a national criminal justice commission rnto look at the whole U.S. criminal justice system, especially the rnfederal, but also in the states.  At every stage, from arrest to parole,rn and to bring together experts from across disciplines and perspectives rnand to try to actually, for the first time in 40 years, look at this rnproblem in a sober-minded way rather than in a partisan, divisive way.  rnAnd that hasn’t happened since President Johnson’s crime commission in rn1967, which, if you go back and dust that off, is a pretty great rndocument.  They had a whole laundry list of reforms.  The prison rnpopulation was 300,000 in their day and they thought that was too high. rn They had a whole series of recommendations for enhancing public safety rnby preventing child abuse with more effective policing, with better rnpublic housing, with afterschool programs, as well as more effective lawrn enforcement techniques, and a better targeting of our criminal justice rnresources, which are so disproportionately devoted to drug crimes right rnnow and not toward the crimes we really tend to be afraid of.  So I rnthink that's promising.  

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

Recorded April 14, 2010