"Tough on crime" Americans have openly abandoned any notion of rehabilitating criminals. Americans all-but invented rehabilitation, and, beginning in the 1830s, Europeans like Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States specifically to see the new "penitentiary." They were impressed.
While the Old World was still flushing people through medieval dungeons, Americans had built humane facilities (mostly in New England) where prisoners worked cottage industries and were encouraged to be "penitent" through silent contemplation. Following the maxim that a society was only as good as its care for the weak and transgressing, the American system seemed filled with promise: Given the right environment, sinners could rehabilitate themselves. Were it otherwise, after all, who among us could be saved?
But today "correctional facilities" (we still cling to rehabilitation in name if not substance) look like community colleges on the outside. On the inside: dungeons with cable.
"Lock 'em up and throw away the key!" is the macho mode of ever-toughening Americans, to the point where a "criminal justice complex" has arisen every bit as pernicious in its own sphere as was the military-industrial complex Eisenhower so futilely warned us against in his presidential farewell. Prison construction interests, guard unions, drug testers, the "privatization" sector, the massive police, prosecutorial and administrative bureaucracy all form a powerful lobby.
The crime lobby steamrolls the "get tough" agenda, flattening reform wherever an objection or alternative might arise. "Soft on crime" has replaced "soft on communism" as the tar brush of choice. Thanks to the "War on Drugs" and lack of drug rehab in prison, America's incarcerated now number more than 2 million, six times all of Europe's prison population; 25 percent of the entire world's.
We have yet to deal with the logical conclusions of such a system. One involves repeat offenders. While we like to talk about throwing away keys, the vast majority of convicts, of course, eventually are released. And, when a prisoner graduates from the world's leading criminal university system, he is an amplified menace.
That $25,000 per convict per year spent by tough-talking taxpayers produces a dangerous surplus of toughness. Offenders may go in with only a passing, if incriminating, interest in a "specialty" and that perfunctory annoyance some people affect for virtually any authority. He or she comes out professionalized, of course, but also possessed of scalding hatreds.
Special fury is reserved for Mr. and Mrs. Citizen who so toughly reject rehabilitation. Unable to retaliate during his years of oppression, the con merely postpones payback. During the next criminal encounter, Mr. and Mrs. Citizen are shocked to discover the perpetrator's bland hatred, dehumanizing lack of compassion, quick resort to violence the same characteristics the "perp" would complain about, and Mr. & Mrs. Citizen applaud, in today's criminal justice system.
Another logical conclusion of incarcerating millions of people, of course, is the expenditure of billions of dollars. The mere fact that a powerful political lobby has been able to coalesce around a new "corrections industry" is as telling as any litany of mind-numbing figures. Especially if we "throw away the keys," medical costs alone for our aging convict population will beggar the public imagination and its treasury.
Two logical conclusions of "get tough," then, are "get tougher" criminals and expenditures. Can we face up to the ultimate logical conclusion? If our prisons have truly given up on rehabilitation, why continue the folly of releasing people who've spent as little as a year in such places? And why suffer the expense of keeping them?
We already know what kind of subhumans we're dealing with. If, prior to their incarceration, they proved they couldn't be trusted at liberty, and if, after experiencing an American prison, we know they are an even worse threat well, subhuman has traditionally executioners a good night's sleep.
Capital punishment is America's noisiest departure from the rest of civilization. And, despite recent proofs of innocence for numerous death-row inmates and the tacit certainty that we have indeed executed innocent people in our lust for justice, Americans remain very much pro-death.
But are we tough enough? We increasingly try children as adults. More than 280,000 current inmates, some on death row, are insane. We've instituted mandatory minimums, abolished parole and passed "three strikes" laws in order to keep bothersome humans out of the loop. Why not a "two-strike mandatory maximum"? Absurdly, many recoil from the logical conclusion of all our vaunted "toughness": outright extermination of what used to be called "the criminal classes."
Today, despite billions spent, people like de Tocqueville would be best advised to stay home when looking for progressive treatment of social problems. Until we substitute "smart" for "tough," Americans will remain hopelessly tangled in the logical conclusions of our current approach to crime.
Travis Charbeneau is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
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