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Summer 2003

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The failure of prison punishment

by David Karp

Imagine that the New York State Department of Corrections erected a razor-wire fence that completely surrounded the 2 million residents of seven upstate counties—Saratoga, Schenectady, Warren, Washington, Montgomery, Rensselaer, and Albany. This is how many citizens are now incarcerated in this country, and it is the highest in U.S. history. In the last three decades, our country has undertaken what prison scholar Todd Clear has called “a great punishment experiment,” locking up more people than ever before, for more types of crime, and for longer periods of time. There are ten times as many people behind bars now as in 1973, the year New York State first created the Rockefeller drug laws.
     The U.S. leads the world in incarceration rates. (Compare, for example, Canada and California, each with populations of about 30 million. In Canada, there are 32,000 inmates; California has 165,000.) Do such mass incarcerations actually change criminal behavior? Some 68 percent of inmates are rearrested within three years of being released. I cannot think of another government program with such a high failure rate that is nevertheless funded so handsomely.
     Mass incarceration has had a particularly negative effect on the black community. Although African-Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise 47 percent of prison inmates. Currently 12 percent of all black men in their twenties and early thirties are behind bars. In 2002 New York State sentenced 759 white people to prison for drug offenses, but it sentenced 2,560 Hispanics and 4,002 African-Americans for the same crimes, even though drug use and drug dealing are equivalent among all three groups. The “war on drugs” is fought hard in the ghetto, but not in the white suburbs, and certainly not very hard on college campuses. If our nation incarcerated wealthy, white college students as it does inner-city African-Americans, drug-law reform would have taken place long ago.
     Our nation spends more than $30 billion each year on prisons, six times what it spent at the beginning of the “punishment experiment.” From 1988 to 1998, New York State correctional spending increased by $761 million, while spending for the State University of New York and City University of New York declined by $615 million.
     It could be a coincidence....
     Tuition in public higher education has skyrocketed, making it ever more difficult for low-income families to send their children to college. This leads back to the issue of race. For the average black family in New York State, SUNY tuition was 24 percent of household income in 1988; by 1997, it had risen to 42 percent (but was still only 25 percent of the income for the average white family). This trend has also occurred in other states too. Nationwide, we now have more black men in prison than enrolled in college.
     Certainly, those people who pose a danger to the community should be behind bars. But more than half of the prison population is sentenced for nonviolent crimes. Let’s start with the 1 million nonviolent prisoners and implement programs that work. For example, drug treatment has been shown to reduce recidivism and cost much less than prison. Offenders should also pay restitution to victims and do community service, and small-scale programs have already demonstrated the effectiveness of supervised offender service. In Oregon, offenders cut and deliver firewood to the elderly. In Vermont, they work in soup kitchens, organize blood drives, and maintain hiking trails. Cleveland’s “Redcoat Brigade,” a project developed by a faith-based group, has offenders assist elderly persons and at-risk youth. Habitat for Humanity has partnered with offenders to build more than 250 homes for low-income families.
     Good community-service correctional programs enable offenders to contribute productively to the community and learn job skills that will help them avoid trouble in the future. With excellent alternatives available, it is time to end the failed “punishment experiment” and have offenders take responsibility for their crimes in a way that is helpful to all of us.

David Karp is an assistant professor of sociology at Skidmore and co-author of What is Community Justice: Case Studies of Restorative Justice and Community Supervision and The Community Justice Ideal. A version of this essay appeared in Schenectady’s Sunday Gazette on April 27.


© 2003 Skidmore College