Source News for Social Justice Action
Date 04/08/18/14:17

by Jim Holt
© 2004 The New York Times

Sunday, August 15, 2004 -- If a time traveler from the future showed up in
our world today, which of our practices would strike him as most
barbarous?  This question makes for an excellent parlor game.  When we look
back at supposedly civilized societies in the past, we are amazed at how
complacently they accepted such obvious evils as slavery, child labor and
torture.  Surely, people in centuries hence will be similarly astonished at
our own moral blind spots.  But what might they be?  After a little
reflection, you may wish to hazard a guess.  Here's mine: punishment by

Prisons happen to be one of humanity's more recent inventions.  Until a
couple of hundred years ago, local jails were mainly for debtors, who were
held until they could arrange to have their obligations met.  In England,
those convicted of crimes used to be fined or whipped or branded -- a ''T''
for thieves, a ''V'' for vagrants -- or publicly humiliated by being put in
a pillory, sometimes with their ears nailed to the beams.  Many crimes,
even minor ones, led to the gallows.  Until 1820, you could be hanged for
stealing as little as five shillings' worth of goods from a shop.

It was in revulsion at the cruelty of such punishments that the modern
prison was created.  The United States led the way.  In the early 19th
century, Europeans traveled to these shores to marvel at a new institution
called the ''penitentiary,'' where inmates were to be reformed by a regime
of silence and hard work.  For a century and a half after the creation of
prisons, crime dropped steadily across Western nations, even as the
severity of punishment diminished.  It seemed reasonable to think that as
society grew more prosperous and equitable, fewer and fewer people would
have to be incarcerated.

But in the 1960's, for reasons scholars still debate, crime began to rise
again.  (This trend was not confined to the United States; it was also
observed in most European countries.)  And in response, our criminal
justice system started getting more punitive.  Legislators showed they were
''tough on crime'' by passing laws that mandated long sentences for even
relatively minor offenses.  In the late 70's, as more and more Americans
were being crowded into lockup, states went on a prison-building
spree.  The inmate census doubled, then doubled again and again.  Today,
this nation keeps more than two million people behind bars -- compared with
only 200,000 three decades ago.  With 5 percent of the world's population,
we account for 25 percent of its prison population.

There are some highly placed people who feel that the urge to incarcerate
has gotten out of hand.  Recently, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
warned of ''moral blindness'' in the criminal justice system, and the
American Bar Association has just issued a report calling for an end to
mandatory minimum sentences and a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation (which
recent studies have shown to be effective, despite the scoffing of many
conservatives).  But there seems to be little popular sentiment for scaling
back our prison system too abruptly.  After all, the great lockup has been
accompanied by a falling crime rate over the last decade.  Troubled
neighborhoods have become peaceful, and everyday life is more secure, at
least from ordinary criminals.

Yet there is a movement afoot today, albeit a tiny one, that aspires to get
rid of prisons altogether.  The members of this movement call themselves
''abolitionists,'' borrowing the term applied to steadfast opponents of
slavery before the Civil War.  Since the 80's, an international group of
abolitionists -- lawyers, judges, criminologists -- has been holding
conferences every few years.  According to ''Instead of Prisons,''
published by the Prison Research Education Action Project in 1976, the
first article of the abolitionist catechism is that imprisonment is morally
objectionable and indefensible and must therefore be abolished.  Are these
people moral visionaries, like their 19th-century namesakes?  Or are they
simply nuts?

When you take a close look at the supposed justifications for punishment by
imprisonment, you find that they don't hold up terribly well in theory or
practice.  Was the expansion of the prison population really responsible
for the drop in crime over the last decade?  Then why did states that
neglected to adopt tougher sentencing rules enjoy the same improvement as
those that did?  Do harsher sentences deter people from committing
crimes?  Then why did the recidivism rate -- that is, the rate at which
released prisoners commit new crimes -- actually go up during the
prison-building boom?

Even if the deterrent effect of imprisonment is overrated, there are those
who feel that lawbreakers should nevertheless get stiff sentences because
they deserve it.  The idea of making an offender suffer for his crime can
be traced to the ''blood vengeance'' practices of primitive
societies.  Today, it goes under the more dignified name of retribution,
which literally means ''paying back.''  How the suffering inflicted on an
offender compensates for his crime has never been clear, unless it is
through the vindictive satisfaction it might bring to his victims and
society.  But is this justice?  There is increasing evidence that the most
violent criminals are often driven by forces beyond their control.  Because
of damage to the frontal lobes of their brains caused by birth
complications, accidents or brutal childhood beatings, they simply can't
contain their aggressive impulses; compared with the rest of us, they live
life on a neurological hair trigger.  Clearly, society needs to
  protect itself from these people.  But does it need to punish them?

Some abolitionists will concede that the prison system is a necessary evil
for now.  Their immediate goal is to decarcerate as many categories of
prisoner as possible (nonviolent drug offenders, for instance), and to make
prisons less debilitating and degrading for those who remain.  But can we
imagine the practice of coercive confinement withering away entirely?  Will
it ever follow barbarous punishments like maiming, flogging and hanging
into extinction?

If the very idea seems hopelessly utopian, consider a real-world case:
Finland.  Three decades ago, the Finns had a severe penal system modeled on
that of the neighboring Soviet Union, and one of the highest imprisonment
rates in Europe.  Then they decided to rethink penal policy along more
humane lines.  Finnish prisons became almost ridiculously lenient by our
standards.  Inmates -- referred to as ''clients'' or ''pupils,'' depending
on their age -- live in dormitory-style rooms, address guards by the first
name and get generous home leaves.  ''We believe that the loss of freedom
is the major punishment, so we try to make it as nice inside as possible,''
one prison supervisor commented.  Today, Finland imprisons the smallest
fraction of its population of any European country (52 prisoners per
100,000 people, compared with 702 in the United States).  Yet its crime
rate, far from exploding, has remained at a low level.

That's a pretty impressive experiment in moral progress.  As Winston
Churchill observed, ''Treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most
unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.''  The American mode of
treatment is starting to look less like a necessary evil and more like a
peculiar institution.
_ _ _

Jim Holt is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine.

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