Saturday, February 27, 2016

Reduce Prison Sentences, Reform Prisons

If you haven't seen Michael Moore's new film, Where to Invade Next, I recommend it. It's not about our next invasion in the sense one would think: Instead, he suggests invading various European countries to steal their good ideas about how to run a humanized economy, completely change schools, treat drug offenders, and even serve better meals to children.

Moore also covers the best way to run prisons by visiting Norway. The maximum sentence in Norway is 21 years, so that's what the mass murderer, Anders Brevik, got for killing 77 young people in 2011. Not only are Norwegian prisoners' sentences shorter, the way they are treated is unbelievably more humane, and their chance for reintegration into mainstream society is much greater. The scene in Where to Invade Next when Moore interviews the father of one teen killed by Brevik is among the most memorable in the movie.

Today's Star Tribune includes a commentary on Minnesota's current efforts to decrease prison sentences in its statewide guidelines. While we have one of the lowest rates of imprisonment in the country, our rate has grown greatly over the past 20 years, and much of it came from increasing terms and adding new felony-level crimes for repeated drunk driving, stalking, and other crimes.

The commentary writer, Michael Friedman of the Legal Rights Center, makes a lot of good points:

The problem is compounded by the fact that criminal sentences derive from a false application of the economic theory of pricing. It may very well be good public policy to tax cigarettes and make the price high enough for consumption to go down. But the “price” of crime, as measured by sentence length, has no proportional relationship to reducing its occurrence.

As Tice commented [in an earlier op-ed], upon review of the research, “crime is a bafflingly complex social phenomenon” and there’s much we do not know. But that doesn’t appear to stop legislators and prosecutors from pushing for increased sentences year after year, as if this higher “price” will magically reduce crime.

The only known result of longer sentences is that people waste more of their years in prison. (An indirect problem is that longer sentences create strong incentives for plea bargains, leading some innocent defendants to plead guilty.)
Friedman ends with a call for more problem-solving courts, which Minnesota has been a leader in developing (drug, DWI, mental health, and veteran courts are all in use here).

Juvenile courts were the original problem-solving court, I guess, but it doesn't seem as though they generally have the same approach as the more-recently created courts. Research shows that young people who commit crimes and are not incarcerated are much less likely to reoffend than young people who are incarcerated, regardless of how heinous the original crime was.

All we are doing with our jail and prison system is cutting people off from normal human contact, treating them like rats in the worst kind of rat cage, rather than putting them in a rat park that could turn their lives around.

I'm not saying that the Norwegian killer Anders Brevik will come out of prison as a newly humane version of himself, just because he was treated humanely in prison. When if anyone deserved different, it was him. But we don't need to become him just to show his actions were wrong.


Some past posts on prisons and juvenile offenders:

Prisoners of Spenda

The New Jim Crow

Felons and the Right to Vote

Juveniles Deserve Juvenile Justice

Cruel and Unusual on the Nightly Show

No comments: