Prisons and punishment

Posted on December 31, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

The growing state prison population is making the news in Arkansas, but reform efforts must not focus solely on cell block census data.

Arkansas’ real problem is crime and how to appropriately punish criminals.

If the state needs a vision statement on the matter, Ray Hobbs, that state Correction Department director, coined one the other day.

“We should lock up the people who hurt us,” he told a legislative subcommittee.

That’s the deceptively simple solution to violent crime—separate violent criminals from society.

The Pew Center’s Public Safety Performance Project will be releasing a report soon about Arkansas’ prison system, but the study we need is one that definitively analyzes the personalities and psyches of violent criminals.

A person capable of repeated rape, robbery or assault is very different from the vast majority of citizens. It may be that all of us harbor a kind of deep, animal instinct that could be triggered into a violent crime of passion under a certain set of very trying circumstances. But when such tragic instances occur, remorse often quickly follows the criminal act. For most violent criminals, however, remorse isn’t part of the equation-or their makeup.

That’s why rehabilitation attempts fail so miserably. To rehabilitate is by definition to restore someone to a normal condition. But in the case of violent criminals, their normality is brutality. The reason their recidivism rate is so high isn’t that our system fails, it’s that their nature prevails.

What’s important to remember as the promise of a new year emerges, not to mention a new, much more bipartisan Legislature, is that violent crime is very controllable and that Arkansas has done a poor job controlling it.

There are 40 states with lower violent crime rates than Arkansas, and 14 states with rates less than half of ours. Why that isn’t deemed exceedingly unacceptable by our politicians, I don’t know.

Maybe it’s because our citizens don’t seem put out enough about it. I think far too many people, have come to accept violent crime as the price of a large, civilized society. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is no fantasy to remember when violent crime was a rarity in America.

Hard as it is to believe, back in 1960 there were many states with fewer than 100 violent crimes per 100,000 population. Maine, whose rate of 119 was lowest in the nation in 2010, had a rate of only 29 in 1960. Vermont had a rate of only 9.5 violent crimes per 100,000.

Arkansas’ rate was only 107 then. Compare that to our 2010 rate of 517.7 murders, rapes, robberies and assaults per 100,000 people. And there are now almost 3 million of us.

The Arkansas state prison population reportedly has doubled over the past 20 years, but since then our violent crime rate has gone up 25 percent. Obviously, we’ve been locking up the wrong people. We’ve turned the old adage about punishment fitting the crime into a misfit.

Prisons, with their exorbitant price tag-$22,000 a year per inmate-should be reserved exclusively for housing and isolating violent criminals. However, criminals without a violent past still need to be punished.Probation is successful in some instances, but its only deterrent effect is achieved through fear of imprisonment.

The best way to create deterrence among nonviolent criminals is to threaten them with something they perceive as utterly undesirable. For a great many druggies, thieves and other minor villains, a very effective punishment would be work.

The 13th Amendment explicitly allows penal servitude “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” There probably are a great many petty criminals who would loathe and fear latrine duty at highway rest stops far more than a few weeks in jail.

It’s true that the old prison work farms were often bastions of abuse and cruelty. This doesn’t mean that modern prison work systems couldn’t be run properly and humanely. After all, if we limit work sentences to those convicted of nonviolent, minor or “victimless” crimes like drug possession, the guards wouldn’t be dealing with menacing criminals who need maximum security.

The system could be tiered so that some convicts report for work like juveniles do for community service. Others could be housed in apartment-like buildings with locks and fences. Perhaps some old housing projects could be put to that use at relatively low cost. Any convict who turned violent would be re-categorized and sent to real prison.

The list of work that needs doing is endless, e.g., farming, picking up trash, cleaning all state property and structures. “Good behavior” discounts could be awarded to prisoners who overachieve or who volunteer to learn some vocational skills.

What some low-level, nonviolent criminals need more than anything is just a radical lifestyle change of environment and running buddies. A work system could deliver that in spades.

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