What Are The Origins of Incarceration?
The concept of incarceration has existed since inception of the “state” as a form of social organization. The development of the state was coextensive with the creation of written language which provided mankind the ability to create laws – beginning with the Code of Hammurabi roughly 3,700 years ago. The penalties for a violation of laws back then, and for quite some time afterward, was not imprisonment, but rather, retaliation by the victims themselves or the victim’s family.
For much of human history, incarceration existed only as a sort of purgatory where a person would languish while awaiting a different form of punishment – death. Indeed, Socrates sat in jail while awaiting his execution. But for the most part, criminals were either executed, maimed, exiled to another country, or simply released back into society. Long-term, extended incarceration is truly a concept of recent vintage – insofar as one takes into account that civilized society as we know it has only existed for roughly 8,000 years. In today’s society, no country locks up more of its citizens than the United States. In my view, the extremely high numbers of people we lock up is more a reflection of social failures than criminality.
Ancient Greek philosophers pondered on the use of punishment as a tool to reform offenders as opposed to using punishment as a tool of retribution. But the concept of modern correctional institutions or prisons remained largely unknown until the early-1800’s.
Does Incarceration Serve as an Effective Deterrent?
While many believe the main purpose of incarceration is deterrence, the reality is that the deterrent effects of incarceration are negligible. The prevailing wisdom on the issue is that people do not want to go to jail and therefore, if breaking the law means one might go to jail, then they will avoid going to jail by simply following the law. The flaw in this logic, however, is that many times, the reward for breaking the law outweighs the potential risks. For wealthy or successful people, their freedom is more important to them than it might be to a poor person who lacks the resources to feed themselves and their family.
Most of the people who are committing crimes would much rather work a straight job. As a Virginia criminal defense lawyer, I have encountered offenders who have discussed their life of crime with me and why they chose a life of crime – most often dealing drugs. Society views drug dealers as people of low moral character and a threat to society. We have been repeatedly told lies about who these people are and how they live their life. For example, if I were to ask you what your image of a drug dealer would be, you would probably respond with a description of a man driving a Mercedes, wearing flashy, expensive jewelry, and reaping large profits by peddling a product which destroys their community and the lives of those living in that community. The reality, however, is that street-level drug dealers make roughly $50 a day. That’s it. These people are risking their lives not to prosper, but to survive. Young people growing up under these circumstances eventually reach the conclusion that the only way to survive is to sell drugs.
In today’s society, even jobs which require very little skill are requiring more education than most people in low-income communities will receive. In America, those who earn an income in the upper 20% of our population control 98% of the wealth. This uneven distribution leaves very little for the bottom 20%. The “American Dream” is dead, but we are locking people up for taking advantage of the only opportunity they have. When your options are so severely limited, deterrence has almost no effect. And this is why I believe that, for the vast majority of those who are arrested, incarceration does not serve to deter anything.
Is Incarceration an Effective Form of Rehabilitation?
The simple answer is “no”. Back in the day, most prisons had inmate degree programs. Today, those programs are nearly non-existent, and any person with even a shred of knowledge about our justice system will tell you that incarceration is probably the worst thing you could do if your goal is to rehabilitate the offender. The reason why is the entire process of incarceration leaves the offender with feelings of injustice, anger, and humiliation. It also surrounds the person with other criminals who only further entrench the person into a life of crime. In fact, when a person does not fear incarceration, but winds up being arrested and sentenced to a jail or prison term, their time in custody generally serves as a means by which they can further develop their knowledge and skills as criminals, not as upstanding, law-abiding citizens. In jail, these offenders actually receive the “education”, acceptance, and recognition they’ve sought, but have been denied, for nearly their entire lives.
It is our country’s incessant and unrelenting incarceration of minorities and poor people – instead of increased opportunities – which has caused these communities to fall further into the depths of despair. Maintaining the wealth of the upper class has caused our society to disregard the well-being of the poor, and those who are privileged enough to make the decisions to change this trend are generally focused on further enriching and protecting the upper echelon of society – even when doing so is at the expense and detriment of the poor. While this line of reasoning and policy-making may benefit the wealthy, it erodes the strength of our society as a whole by disenfranchising and isolating the vast majority of the nation’s citizens.
How Can We Lower Incarceration and Recidivism Rates?
Education is really the answer to our crime problems because a lot of the people who have been incarcerated are not “dumb.” They may be bad criminals, but they certainly are not stupid. In fact, only 3% of the world’s population is considered mentally gifted. By contrast, over 20% of those incarcerated are mentally gifted. Our society would be much better served by providing these people an opportunity to prosper without having to resort to crime.
While some people are just inherently criminal-minded, these people do not make up the majority of those who are incarcerated. To be sure, extended incarceration is definitely appropriate in many circumstances, but not at the rates they are currently at, and certainly not under the deplorable conditions these prisoners are forced to live in.
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By: Randall Sousa