But is what we are doing making us any safer? Statistics clearly show that crime rates have not dropped as incarcerations have accelerated. I'd love to see the Freakonomics guys* aim some of their research to expose the increase in community poverty as incarcerations rates rise. Families whose children often encounter the "gateway" to incarceration through small infractions inflated by poverty, low-literacy and poor or inaccurate understanding of how to handle low-level legal problems can too often graduate to more family fracturing through financial loss, fear and the multitude of steps needed to overcome each misstep.
But how do we actually expect jails and prisons to work? Do we expect people to come out with new positive attitudes about the potential for success by following the straight and narrow road? Do we expect people to come out with more wisdom and better skills for being contributing members of society? Do communities respond with hate or indifference or by mentoring a returning person as they readjust to a life that has quite literally passed them by? Do churches do a better job than our government, culture or the too small and narrow pockets of social service networks?
Or do we just want them to all die? I know that sound harsh, but frankly, this seems to be the attitude of so many people which is puzzling, since the current numbers indicate that one in four people have been arrested at some time. Of course, arrest does not always lead to incarcerations, but each comes with the potential to do so. So why are we so complaisant, at least until it is one of "our own" who encounters the challenges?
In history, including but not exclusively Biblical history, incarceration was literally a "last resort" when folks repeatedly committed such dangerous acts that long-term incarceration or death was deemed necessary for the protection of society. Today too often it is seen as inevitable by folks on both sidelines -- low grade offenders and enforcement folks. When smaller communities had more input into the justice system more wayward folks were redirected back into contributing positions in society rather than catapulted into journeys that too often make "baby badies" into hardened, determined men and women with little or nothing to lose.
Today, not all who are incarcerated even come to trail, but can languish for weeks or months or even years as prosecutors work to "make the case." Some are never tried -- if they were determined in pretrial to have not been the guilty party, or that while they were not completely cleared there was ultimately inadequate proof to bring to trial. Some plead out and there is increasing evidence that this can occur when they are bullied by threats of being charged with decades or life sentences versus a few years if they "confess" and accept a plea which reduces the cost to the prosecutor's office but may not actually advance the cause of justice....if indeed their crimes are worthy of a decades to life punishment, is it justice to victims or safe to the community for them to "get off" with short sentences? Some are found guilty, but when it has taken so long that "time served" is the outcome -- isn't it odd that their sentence is "just" by accident. And what consideration is given if the time they served was actually too long and the financial costs (legal fees, lost wages, costs to families, trauma to children, etc) were unreasonable in light of the final judgement.
Some are found guilty and were sent to "do time" in a hodgepodge of ways. In some states low-grade felony time is served in the local jail if the sentence is less than 6 months; in other states it runs to two years. For example if the limit is 12 months you will find a disproportionate number of sentences for 11 months 29 days which keeps folks in the local jail. If local jail overcrowding becomes an issue I suspect the disproportion begins to run to 12 months 1 day. This also makes a huge difference in the likelihood of rehabilitation. Being in jail MAY mean being closer to supportive family and church family and being released into a more familiar environment. But being in prison MAY mean better access to GED classes, job-training, parenting classes, life skills classes and designed release programs with some better track record of lower recividism.
Sentences can run consecutively (so five 20 years sentences become 100 years) or concurrently (thel five sentences are completed on the same day 20 years hence). I'd love to talk to retired judges to understand how well such things are considered by the judiciary and how careful judges are in considering the bigger picture relating to justice; for too often a less than five year jail sentence leaves offenders with mental health, medical, family and financial brokenness that results in homelessness, recidivism, early death and/or a long-term, constant drain on public resources.
Is this really the outcome that serves the victims, the communities or society at large?.Are we not ALL better served if they are welcomed and even coached back in to lives of productive living, working, paying their way (and paying taxes), raising healthier kids rescued from the foster care system, contributors to their families, communities and society?
*Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner