U.S. Epidemic of Incarceration and Sentencing Alternatives

OK, one more entry on the U.S. Epidemic of Incarceration and then on to more pleasant topics…

And admittedly, it is not very “pleasant” to think of mostly young, minority men, rotting in prison and themselves being robbed of potentially the most productive years of their lives. And it is certainly not “pleasant” to think about crime victims.

But, we must find some way to better balance the needs of these 2 interest groups. Often the debate stops immediately, and quite compellingly, with “What about the victims?” or to quote Helen Lovejoy from the Simpson’s: “Will someone please think of the children?

In order to move past that argument, let’s assume the rest of my comments pertain strictly to victimless crimes – recall (from my last post) that they are the majority of those incarcerated. Of course to do this we have to accept that there are in fact victimless crimes – that a Hollywood actor who snorts Cocaine is not responsible for the murderous crimes of a Columbian Druglord. But hopefully, most people are able to disambiguate between the two.

Furthermore, as we continue to speak about non-violent offenders, can we agree that:

1. There are segments of the prison population who do not need to be there

a. Society derives more benefit from having individuals pay taxes as productive citizens versus consume taxes as a prisoners.  Prison is the most expensive form of Welfare imaginable.

2. Prison actually increases criminality

a. This should be common sense. If you take someone who is a little bit misguided – lock them up for a couple of years with folks who are a lot misguided – what type of person do you think you will have in the end? (if you don’t believe this, see the story of Lionel Tate)

b. Do more convicts = less crime or more crime? Because of the complex variables involved, contrary to what most politicians tell you, this statement is almost impossible to prove either way. So let’s stick to the common sense approach.

3. Prison should be a last resort after other options have been tried

a. Today, there are already compelling alternatives to prison: restitution, fines, house arrest (with an exemption for work hopefully), and boot camp just to name a few. So why does our prison population continue to swell. Are these alternatives being used when, or as often as, they should?

So, can we send fewer people to prison? Is there a technologically and socially feasible solution to the problem of over-incarceration and the ever-growing prison population?

Can science or technology contribute to the solution? Certainly, movies like the very powerful A Clockwork Orange have led to some skepticism. Thus, so far, Ankle Bracelets and “SuperMax” prisons aside, there have been very few contributions of science to the field of criminal justice.

But consider a combination of several different approaches:

  1. Modern Tracking Systems
    1. We can pinpoint and track just about anything, just about anywhere on the planet – down to a $10 UPS package. Can’t we track individuals who submit to be monitored?
    2. Instead of just monitoring position/location. Also monitor with voice/cell communications – so that someone being monitored can be reached at any time
    3. If you really need to be Big Brother with someone with a drug or alcohol problem, while you are combining a GPS and Cellphone and Ankle Bracelet throw in some sensors to sniff the air for traces of the stuff.  They do this now with car interlock devices that you have to blow into to start. 
    4. Rather than just passively monitor individuals, provide alerts when someone goes in areas that they probably shouldn’t (e.g. known drug areas)
    5. Create parole officers who are essentially high tech prison guards without walls. If the shipping guy from the Nextel commercial can ask “Who’s agitating my dots. Can’t a parole officer see and ask “Who’s agitating my parolees”
    6. I am certainly no fan of a surveillance society – but if it is a choice between having .7% of the population in prison or under electronic surveillance – I’ll pick the surveillance every time.
  2. The Laws of Credible Threat and Immediate Consequences
    1. ABC Primetime had a great show on how they were able to get an entire office to lose 20 pounds using a credible threat
    2. So can’t we come up with alternate credible threats before prison must be used
  3. Derive a more graduated scale of punishments
    1. So there are alternatives for someone who has a technical parole violation other then sending them back to prison for the rest of their sentencing term.

While it simply is not possible to write the complete solution to this large problem in one page, it is nonetheless a solution that we must start to more earnestly seek. Continuing to imprison offenders for victimless offenses and destroying them along with their families will not serve the long term interest of our nation.

It is an imperfect world and criminality is but one part of that imperfection. But we should not make this imperfect world worse with misguided policies.

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1 Response to “U.S. Epidemic of Incarceration and Sentencing Alternatives”



  1. 1 Be Nice to Your Hall Monitor - or Else Do 7 Years Hard Time « The Software Foundry Trackback on April 4, 2007 at 10:37 am

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