Why Not Just Lock ‘Em Up?

By Will Baker

On the way into work this morning I listened to a commentary piece on Vermont Public Radio by Dr. Olin Robison, former President of Middlebury College. And I was surprised to learn that this past week our country has reached a rather dubious milestone: 2 million individuals in the United States are now serving time behind bars. Imagine that, roughly four times the population of the state of Vermont is in prison. In addition, Dr. Robison pointed out that while our country accounts for only five-percent of the world’s population, fully twenty five percent of those in prison are incarcerated in this country. Ironically, our prison population has burgeoned during a time of economic prosperity. And this flies in the face of historical norms. Typically, prison populations swell during "hard-times" when folks are forced to take what they can no longer buy. But the longest period of economic growth and prosperity in our nation’s history has also resulted in a record high prison population. And lastly, and perhaps most disturbing of all is the fact that, if this trend continues, in a very short time one in every nine men in this country will have spent time behind bars. Imagine the less than useful social skills that are being imparted upon these folks while they are there. To be blunt, this situation strikes me as outrageously unacceptable.

But what do these startling statistics say about who and what we are as a nation? Along the same lines, I do find it curious that our country is the sole remaining industrialized nation to be utilizing the death penalty. It is also no source of pride that were we a European nation we would not be eligible for inclusion in their Economic Union because of this fact. We are a people that loves to wage war. And if there is no "real" war to be had we will fabricate one. We have waged "wars" on various diseases, illiteracy, and crime to name just a few. Take for instance the so-called war on drugs. It is my understanding that fully two thirds of the two million folks currently behind bars are non-violent offenders, the majority of whom are serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug related crime. If there is a war on drugs happening, they must be its POWs. It is a curious dynamic that snatches up so many of our fellow citizens, many of whom were tax paying members of society, and places them in prison at a yearly cost of about $40,000 per inmate. And since there are 2 million folks behind bars, this means that the price tag for this unfortunate situation is a staggering $80 billion annually.

There must be a better way to mitigate the effects of crime than locking up so many of our fellow citizens. The other industrialized nations do not have crime rates in excess of our own, and many of them have crime rates that are far lower. And they are not locking up so many of their citizens. So why are we? Getting tough on crime sounds so appealing in its simplicity. We are a society that values immediate gratification. And what simpler way is there to address the issue than to just quickly lock ‘em up. And as you can imagine, these days building prisons and housing inmates is a huge growth industry. It seems to me that any industry with an $80 billion yearly budget, whether governmental or not, has lobbyists and interest groups working the system. For several years the politicians, at the local, state and national levels have been walking in "lock step" touting a let’s get tough on crime stance. And we see where it has brought us.

In Vermont, there are now so many individuals being locked up that we have to export them to prisons in other states. It is my understanding that many of these folks are doing time in New Jersey prisons. And this is an experience that is not unique to Vermont. In addition, throughout the country there is a move to privatize our correctional institutions. Private companies are now constructing and operating prisons through contractual arrangements. Obviously, the 80 billion dollars referenced above provides ample motivation for the private sector to look for a piece of the pie.

But where does this leave us? In simple terms I wonder if that $80 billion needs to be spent at all? This is not an argument in favor of decriminalizing a host of current offenses. But it is a plea for self-examination. It seems to me that, statistically speaking, something is horribly wrong with a nation that represents five percent of the world’s population but which hosts twenty-five percent of the world’s convicts. And to think that, if current trends continue, one in nine men will have served time in prison... it makes my head spin. This is a recipe for disaster, and one that requires immediate attention. We do not need more jails. We need to gain a better insight on the nature of crime, and the societal impacts, as well as the corresponding impacts associated with the manner in which we are currently attempting to address the issue. When crafting solutions to the challenges confronting society we like to think in terms of costs and benefits. As relates to the current manner in which we are attempting to address crime in America, it seems to me that we have reached the point of diminished returns, and it is time to rethink policies that have utterly failed.


 (Essay Collection)