America on Probation

We may be getting over our peculiar love of prisons. But if not prisons, what?

Comments: 187

  1. Stop the privatization trend,
    The "for profit prisons" should end,
    Sans profit in jailing,
    New strategies hailing,
    To "understuffing" let us tend.

  2. I love you, Larry Eisenberg

  3. I think inmates need a reasonable way to prove themselves, not only to us but also to themselves, when they are released. How do they get any traction to do this if they can't find housing and jobs? It reminds me of deficiencies in hospital discharge planning and the revolving door with predictable re-admissions when follow-up outpatient appointments have not been arranged as needed, for example. I realize that plenty of Americans who have not been imprisoned are also looking for work, so in this job market I don't know how we would accomplish this, but when a prisoner is released, it seems to me that they need not only bus fare, but, if not a job referral, then at least some kind of path towards employment that is viable. I don't see how we expect them to have a reasonable chance of not relapsing into patterns of behavior that lead to re-imprisonment, if they can't get a job.

  4. Want to prevent felons from coming back to prison, give them a job making a living wage, but then honest people would start commiting crime just to get back into the workforce.

  5. Perhaps we could treat the private prison industry the way we treat the medical community, rewarding them for successful outcomes instead of warehousing, and penalize them for recidivism.

  6. EricR,

    I think that's a great idea!

  7. “Penitentiary” is derived from “penitence”: a “time out” to be used for solitary reflection about one's misdeeds and studying ways to improve one's conduct upon release. Originally, occupants stayed alone in their cells, reading the Bible and praying. However, this system was soon abandoned, and we ended up with a very different one: hundreds of miscreants crowded together in veritable hotbeds of iniquity. Prisoners today deepen their knowledge of crime methodology and engage in mentally and physically dangerous activities while in prison, all due to sustained contact with fellow prisoners.

    But there may be some wisdom in the original concept that could be applied today. Solitary confinement such as in the original penitentiaries is considered much harder time than when prisoners can interact with each other. However, if done correctly, solitary can provide a chance for prisoners to ponder their plight, read, study, and make some plans for how to change their lives when they get out. Furthermore, since it is much “harder” time, it could also be much shorter: instead of (e.g.) five years in a conventional lockup, six months of quiet solitary%2Bstudy time, including weekly counseling and weekly visits with family.

    This approach could save a fortune in costs due to dramatically shorter sentences. Eliminating contact among prisoners would make penitentiaries much safer. And with ample time alone to think things through, convicts could work out how to turn their lives around.

  8. Perhaps. but some of them will first need to be taught to read, and many will need education in other basic societal functions. Without that, all the contemplation in the world will do them and us no good.

  9. @Brian: Solitude is good, but "solitary confinement" doesn't have to be 24/7, and it certainly doesn't mean without ANY contact between a prisoner and others -- just limited contact.

    @EricR: Yes, "rehabilitation" is good -- reading is certainly THE key; but how about after release... say, in a halfway-house program?

  10. Brian: I am aware of the research. I alluded to it indirectly when I said that solitary was harder time, and also when I mentioned much shorter sentences, focused on self-improvement, with weekly counseling. I'm not proposing that we throw people in solitary as is now currently done primarily for punishment during their existing sentences. Instead, I'm proposing the use of solitary reflection instead of the currently longer sentences as a means of helping prisoners understand themselves, with support from the system, and also as a way of preventing the adverse effects of interaction among prisoners. A secondary benefit is that it could also be more cost-effective. Also, triage would be important: the approach would not be appropriate for all prisoners, for example, criminals who are too dangerous ever to be released are a completely separate issue.
    EricR: yes, basic education is tremendously important, but I'm not sure I agree that contemplation would be useless for an illiterate person. For example, solitary reflection, free from negative peer influences, could help them understand that a large part of their plight is due to their lack of basic education, that help is available, and that they should avail themselves of it.

  11. One big change that is needed is to criminalize, prosecute and incarcerate the cops, prosecutors and judges who railroad innocents into prison. Once could be an honest mistake, twice is a continuing criminal enterprise. Second, release all prisoners whose sole offense is the simple posession of drugs. Thirdly make it mandatory to record video and audio of every police citizen interaction.

  12. Very good ideas. Who would oversee this process?

  13. This column is welcome, describing the beginnings of calls for reform.

    Out of all our nation’s dire problems crying out for remedy, the criminal justice system should have the highest priority. We are seeing a human rights violation unbefitting a modern democracy. Millions are unjustifiably rotting in jail in the land once an exemplar of freedom and justice. For many, voting is forever denied.

    This should be Obama's and Holder's 1st priority to reform. Not just a few pardons, thank you. Now that most admit the drug war was badly conducted, we are still keeping millions in jail even as we see legalization of the very drug that got so many put away for long sentences. There's no worse contradiction to our rule of law.

    Our mass incarceration with excessive sentencing is out of step with international standards. In other advanced countries, as Times articles have reported, they don't have such irrational punishments for non violent crimes. Justice officials abroad express surprise and dismay at our sentencing. We should be reevaluating sentencing not to save money, but for humanitarian rationality, to hold up our head among the world's nations.

  14. You are right of course, but with the supreme court saying innocence is not sufficient grounds for an appeal, I hold little hope of seeing massive reform any time soon.

  15. It used to be so easy. Fail to pay your debt and you were sold into slavery and your debts were repaid from the proceeds. Caught stealing once and lose a hand, twice lose your head.

    Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth punishment just leads to a society of one eyed toothless people. If we are to replace punishment with correction we need to improve on an 80% recidivist rate.

    It should be obvious that our current prison system, most especially the for profit private prisons are little better that a medieval axe or hot poker. If we cannot do better than shame on us.

  16. Putting people who are arrested and convicted on drug charges in prison is exactly the wrong thing to do. Their problem is that they've acquired a harmful habit, so the proper approach should be rehabilitation, not prison time. Get them off drugs, and give them some kind of training so that they can pursue a useful trade or perhaps a better education. In other words, they should be treated like people with a debilitating illness, not like hardened criminals.

    The problem with drug gangs and the havoc they cause is that big money is involved in the sale and purchase of illegal drugs. One alternative is to legalize drugs, or at least some of them. Legalization of a relatively innocuous drug, like marijuana, is a no-brainer, and other states should follow the lead of Colorado and Washington. Legalizing other drugs, like heroin, is more problematic because they can be severely addictive. In some European cities, there are restricted zones where hard-core drugs are legally available, but whether the American public would accept such an arrangement is questionable.

  17. Actually, spending only a small part of the monies we now spend on prisons on worthwhile prevention would be so much better; why don't we have decent schools, appropriate childcare, good job training programs? Why don't we have adequate mental health programs? As many as half the inmates in certain populations have mental health issues.

  18. The effects of excessive incarceration are beneficial to certain segments of the powers that be. Voting is denied to many with criminal records. So when kids have 'increasing entanglements’ with the justice system it is ultimately leading to rw gop goals of vote reduction. We've seen how far they will go to interfere with this basic right.

    Zero tolerance in schools feeds sets up a chain of events leading to feeding the privatized prison system, getting funds per number of prisoners, and making jobs for prison guards. And what about all those TV shows like Lockup shown on MSNBC on weekends, and others channels devoted to crime? They entertain us who are out of jail with stories about the jailed. Big media profits there. Big money comes out of our justice system.

    Long jail terms result in a systematic reduction in the possibilities of surviving as an independent, productive citizen. No voting, no job, no military, no college aid, and I believe no welfare or food stamps in some states. It’s a perfect set up for readmittance to the cell.

    The attitudes that push zero tolerance created the largest prison system in the world, and out of control stop and frisk that the judge finally called unconstitutional—but which was justified by some of our highest officials.

    Prison sentences in other democracies in the world are less harsh, for drugs and non violent crimes. The US elects judges and prosecutors, who whip up public hostility to win elections.

  19. Here's a thought: prosecutors should be taught to focus on actual guilt as opposed to win-at-all-costs-so-I-can-be-elected-judge. When that happens, DAs will be less likely to violate Brady and suborn the perjury of law enforcement in the false pursuit of "justice."

  20. The problem with this is that prosecutors need to run for election, so sound bites about "being tough on crime" resonate with communities who probably haven't bothered to sit in on court cases to see how justice is dispensed. Maybe we need to look at appointing DAs to take away the inclination to "coerce" plea bargains from those who may be innocent of the charges against them. Then we reduce the opportunity for these DAs to "brag" about how many "criminals" they have gotten off the street in the next election cycle.

  21. The current justice system seems unable to deal with non-violent crimes separately from violent crimes. Locking people up for being loaded is like locking them up for being drunk, but with a much more serious sentence than for drunkenness. Reducing the sentences for drug intoxication and sending the drug users to help outside the penal system seems more effective and a lot less expensive. Reduced costs should appeal to conservatives, treatment should appeal to liberals. If this sounds like Mr. Keller's column, good, it bears repeating. Our current system is not working.

  22. See editorial " Lessons From European Prisons" , Nov 7.
    US corrections officials, judges, etc, visited prisons in Germany and the Netherlands.
    “Those countries incarcerate people at about one-tenth the rate of the United States, for far less time, and under conditions geared toward social reintegration rather than punishment alone.”

    “The American and European systems differ in almost every imaginable way, beginning with their underlying rationale for incarceration. Under German law, the primary goal of prison is “to enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility free of crime upon release.” Public safety is ensured not simply by separating offenders from society, but by successfully reintegrating them.”

    ”To this end, inmates are given a remarkable level of control over their lives and their personal privacy. Some wear their own clothes and prepare their own meals. They interact with staff trained not only in prison security, but in educational theory and conflict management.”

    Glimmers of US progress—“Georgia has increased its investment in specialized drug and mental-health courts. Colorado, Maine and Mississippi are among those reforming solitary-confinement practices. As states continue to rethink outdated assumptions, they would be wise to pay close attention to European counterparts.”

  23. Thank you for mentioning solitary confinement. It inflicts psychological pain and damage to such a degree that it is hard to argue that it is anything less than torture, and yet its widespread use in US prisons is often overlooked in discussions of criminal justice reform.

  24. With scant attention paid to reducing prosecutorial misconduct, there is less hope of limiting prosecutors' powers in seeking excessive punitive measures. Self-described 'tough-on-crime' individuals who hold public office should be asked why the U.S. has the highest incarceration rates, lengthiest prison terms and the largest ratio of repeat offenders in the developed world.

  25. Bill, our prisons are only an "international scandal" in Sweden. Check out the prisons in Turkey or, better yet, in France. Nowhere are prisons sanctuaries of light wherein the socially broken are repaired and sent on their ways with "good citizen" buttons that they've earned.

    Yet, the approaches you document could play a part in making prisons more manageable and in helping redeem lives.

    However, there is a type of human that can be found in any society, who makes choices to conduct his life outside the bounds of what communities regard as minimally acceptable behavior; and most notable among this class are the violent. Despite the causal factors at play here, such as unstable families and poverty, society still has the right and obligation to protect itself from such, and we've never invented anything that does that as effectively as separation from a society that the imprisoned would prey upon if free.

    A big part of our problem is that we criminalize too much, and our prisons contain a large number of people who don't really fit that class. If prisons only held the habitually predatory and violent, you wouldn't be writing this op-ed, because it wouldn't be an issue that interested large numbers.

    The options you discuss are good ones for reducing prison populations to the class they're designed to appropriately segregate from society, and "Re-entry" might even salvage some of them. But those who remain after such filters are applied are in prison for good reason.

  26. Some people are, admittedly, difficult to reach. I would be careful about distinguishing between "type[s] of human," though. Many people can be reached and can develop further, even people who put most other people off. I also don't think that people sit down and choose to become the way they are. Violent behavior I think is the tip of a more complicated iceberg.

  27. Diana, people ultimately need to be held responsible for SOMETHING.

    While it's true that life conditions complicate an ability to live within fence posts, and just as true that, given unlimited attention and resources we might be able to salvage almost everyone, no society EVER has been able to dedicate unlimited resources to this challenge; and I wouldn't want to be the one to comfort the wife of a murdered bodega owner because a recidivist violent offender was given perhaps one chance too many.

    In the end, while nobody can completely be expected to become the person they may want to become rather than the one they do become in a very tough society, it remains that we must hold people accountable for choices they do make, their consequences, and the likely arc of the remainder of their lives. Society owes that to every bodega owner, and to each of us.

  28. My own, thankfully indirect experience with the justice system makes me ask one question. How might people in the system, or at risk of getting into the system respond to love. This does not mean a less than life sentence, or even an extended "rehabilitation" during which they become fodder for just another system requiring customers. Rather, it means a job, doors opening, appreciation, a close-up glimpse of what their life can be.

  29. Just checked the stats between our two countries
    US 716 per 100000
    Germany 80 per 100000

    I don't think this can be explained by some external factors like immigration, because if this would be a problem - we have a huge immigration rate.
    Nor do i think this can just be a problem of incarceration alone, there must be some enviromental factor, and they are characteristical especially for the US.
    For me most plausible is the lacking of an institutional social system, a simple system to provide and enforce a right not to fall into beggarliness and misery.

    Streamlining the incarceration would only have a marginal effect, it wouldn't bring down the numbers to 15% (what would be our rate). Rather i think there is a holistic approach needed for the whole society.
    Even if statistic would prove, that providing social safety is more rewarding than just locking away all the people who failed to find a way of decent living in a 'rugged' country, this would be a to big change.

  30. There's a ton of research showing that crimes tend to be committed by people with less education, less family stability and fewer jobs. Another large number of people commit crimes because they're mentally ill; actually some are locked up because they're doing something that carries criminal penalties but they're just acting out because of their illness. So if we keep families together, find ways to keep kids out of the system, and deal with mental health issues, we'll have less crime. Just saw a story about an Indian reservation that redistributed casino earnings; people who simply got money had better health and committed fewer crimes.

    And a saner immigration policy wouldn't be a bad thing.

    Don't forget: private prisons and prison guard unions hire lobbyists to keep more people in prison. It's important to tell our legislators we're fed up with locking people up for a few grams of marijuana and we don't want to see arrests made on the basis that we need to fill the private jail beds to maintain a city contract. Almost every social failure - from education to healh care to justice - is heavily influenced by lobbyists and political ties.

  31. I am surprised in Bill Keller's assessment that in his brief mention of drug related drug crime he only mentions the rollback of draconian drugs laws, specifically in New York and California. There is a bit bigger, more humane, and civil solution to overcrowded prisons, and it is happening in Colorado and Washington. Legalization ends the arrest and incarceration of marijuana drug offenses and tampers illicit drug associated non-violent offenses (e.g. money laundering); as a side note hopefully, we can legalize a few of the less harmful other substances and utilize harm-reduction programs, like the Swiss successfully have, for the rest. But, is not just non-violent drug arrests prohibition created. The War on Drugs put fuel to the flames in regards to our violent crime incidence. When an economy is outside the purview of the government, it must rely on self-regulation to enforce rules, debts, and codes. This means murder, rape, assault, and just about every brutal tactic in the books. End the drug war, and a good chunk of "America's Probation" will end.

  32. There is a direct correlation between education and crime and between economic well-being and crime.
    To me it seems evident that getting more people into an educational stream will not only reduce incidence of crime but also increase national wealth. When candidate Obama spoke about the need to expand educational opportunities, he was derided by Santorum and others as being uppity and snooty. Obama was not calling for all Americans to go to Harvard; he was careful in including trade schools, community colleges, and others. With that kind of attitude and opposition, good luck in trying to expand educational opportunities.
    The other factor is the status of the economy. We need to invest in our infrastructure. Not only will it add to our national wealth, it will create employment to a large number of people and deter them from petty crime. And for me that is a simple two-fer.
    Of course getting rid of the silly marijuana possession law and other such changes are also welcome, but longer and more permanent benefits can be derived by expanding educational opportunities. Let us reduce the cost of college education. Let us encourage more people to attend colleges and stay enrolled.

  33. Our incarceration rates have been the laughingstock of the world for decades, industrialized and rural alike. Moving to more humane sentencing and treatment and moving away from overcrowded rooms without hope--both present a chance to bring our country into a modern age.

    We really need to move our government back into the marketplace of prisons even while reducing the need for them. Private for-profit prisons introduce the moral hazard of businesses that want people locked up regardless of the cause. The rest of society only wants people locked up when we have no other alternative, but those companies make money off of human misery. Enough is enough.

  34. Restorative justice is another strategy that is gaining traction. It emphasizes the harm crime does to individuals and the community rather than to the state. And it seeks to repair that harm by involving multiple stakeholders in a carefully facilitated mediation process, which includes victims, offenders, and other community members.

  35. Restorative Justice is a pro-active program for victims and the community but there has been no significant evidence-based research that it is effective in lessening recidivism.

  36. Thank you! I haven't read all the comments but I am astonished that "In conversations with a wide range of criminal justice experts" Bill Keller did not learn that restorative justice is a strongly viable alternative. New Zealand has run its entire youth justice system restoratively for over 20 years and closed its youth detention centers. The closest Keller got was in the sentence "The popularity of drug courts has spawned other specialized venues — veterans’ courts, domestic violence courts — that aim to address problems rather than simply dispense punishment." Now that's an idea! There's an excellent pilot diversion project for young people in Oakland CA, for example, that is diverting them, not just from prison but from even getting criminally charged on their record, if they complete a restorative plan created with a community circle, ideally including the person(s) they harmed, the arresting officer, mentors etc. See

  37. The penal colony system of the U.S., with its
    privatized offshoots and with its draconian
    administration, is testimony to an underlying evil.
    The 99 percent are not merely ignored, a significant
    percentage are treated as plague ridden refuse.
    When in the course of human events........

  38. Jails are expensive to maintain, are not the answer to the many with nonviolent 'crimes', witness the marijuana fiasco. And the conflict of interest of those whose salary and job depends on maintaining the status quo. Besides, a relatively 'soft' offender may easily be converted into a hard core criminal when exposed to the inmate's ills, abuse from both the jailed and jailers. An urgent national conversation is needed.

  39. At the end of this opinion, Mr. Keller, you mention people who oppose charter schools and seem to assume that charter schools help students. There are measurements of the success rate of charter schools which show that they are not better than regular public schools at educating students, even with the advantages that are given to charter schools. I oppose charter schools because they siphon money away from public schools and will kill our public schools, which have the responsibility to educate all students.

  40. Bravo, ShowMe! Being the only stabilizing influence in some unfortunate children's lives, orderly public schools that provide students with structure and basic skills are the best defense against criminality there is! If we feel that our public schools are not effective, owing to the undue influence of union work rules or feel-good junk pedagogy, then let us fix THAT as a matter of public policy. Let us NOT channel our educational funds into charter schools where only those children whose parents are highly motivated to enroll them there will have any chance at an education, if in, fact charter schools are better at doing that than public schools; a matter that is open to debate. As we will always have the poor among, we will alos have the criminal, but both groups can be made smaller with effective education.

  41. If nothing else, getting rid of the for - profit prisons would be a step in the right direction.

  42. Q: What is the equivalent of the military industrial complex?

    A: Prison unions: "The quest for safe and humane alternatives to lockup faces opposition from prosecutors protecting their leverage, from corrections employee unions protecting jobs and from a private prison industry protecting profits. (Private prison operators, who house about 9 percent of prison inmates, have a vested interest in keeping prisons full because they are paid based on occupancy.)"

  43. Incarcerating people is BIG business in this country. From the prison-guard unions to the for-profit prisons to those corporations that build and sell services for the running of prisons, we face a large, well-funded Prison Industrial Complex that makes money by incarcerating more and more people. We've had judges in the pay of the private prison industry sending children to juvenile prisons for what we'd conceder minor infractions at school. We've emptied the ghettos so that the Prison Industrial Complex can thrive off of wasting our tax dollars. When are we going to learn??? We are certainly #1 in wasting taxpayer $$$ to feed the horrendous waste, both in money and lives ruined, so some can make way more money than they should, at others expense, enough already.

  44. Like so much in contemporary American society the easiest way to handle human problems seems to be to shove them in a closet, or rather, contract someone on the take to shove them in a closet with taxpayer funding.

    The scandal in places like Arizona where privatized prison corporations lobby and pay off politicians to enact ridiculously draconian laws to fill their for-profit cells is just the latest scam to profit from human misery and get taxpayers to agree to rob education and health care to pay for it.

    The best prison systems in the world focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. Such a philosophy makes infinitely more sense than our crazy, ruinously expensive vendetta mills.

    But a system that reveres killing people, even when their convictions are based on prosecutorial misconduct, as recently seen in multiple cases in Texas and Florida--our execution capitals--we are hardly going to move toward more compassionate prison policies soon.

  45. Without coming right out and stating it, Bill Keller argues for ending the War on Drugs. Demilitarize police forces. Grant blanket amnesty to all non-violent drug offenders. Legalize marijuana and, yes, decriminalize hard drugs. The doubters need to face the truth: prohibition does not work. It never has and it never will.

  46. The problems with Americans is they do not believe in justice but are obsessed with power, teaching people lessons. My wife is mentally ill and any papers the state agencies put in front of her, that can make problem for me, she will sign. She is a prosecutors delight, Now spend a fortune proving that you are not guilty when the money could have gone to the children's education. The government is not intimidated by making false charges. The systems is a parasite off the economy as is the NSA spy program that rationalizes protecting us from terrorists. I'm more afraid of my wife and the legal system in America then any terrorist

  47. First step to reform is to begin rigorously enforcing the laws at the top of the socio-economic food chain: investigate and prosecute banking, government, business and other malefactors particularly those who have accumulated great wealth. The citizens take cues from the behavior of leadership, when crime at the top is deemed to be acceptable, it will be seen as such at the bottom.

    The second easy step is to provide something like comprehensive mental health services (rather than unaffordable insurance). In the US, the penitentiary has become the de-facto insane asylum, the men with the straitjackets and butterfly nets are now the police. This is inhumane, counterproductive and extremely costly.

  48. You've hit the nail on the head. What's good for the goose is not necessarily good for Justin Bieber or Ethan Couch.

  49. Good article but why not interview those who dealt directly with the prisoners and ex prisoners, vis-a-vis those in academia, etc. As a former P.O. here who worked with juvenile offenders in camps, I could provide a laundry list of viable ways to reduce the recidivism. The ivory tower theoreticians have the knowledge but not the experience. Recycled platitudes. Hate to sound cynical but in California prisons are a business, and some are profitable but at a cost.

  50. 'The U.S Prison Crisis:

    "With only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prison population – that makes us the world’s largest jailer."

    "Since 1970, our prison population has risen 700%."

    "One in 99 adults are living behind bars in the U.S. This marks the highest rate of imprisonment in American history."

    "One in 31 adults are under some form of correctional control, counting prison, jail, parole and probation populations."

    "In America, our criminal justice system should keep communities safe and treat people fairly, regardless of the color of their skin or the size of their bank account. in order for our system to do a good job, it must be cost-effective by using our taxpayer dollars and public resources wisely, in an evidence-based rather than fear-based manner."

    "But our criminal justice system is not doing a good job. It has failed on every count: public safety, fairness and cost-effectiveness." It's not locking people up for rehab purpose, but for corporation profits. Furthermore, petty crimes get jail times, while corporate corruption get bigger paid check like Mr. Jamie Dimon from Chase. Are we living in a country with two tails? The rich gets richer and the poor gets poorer.

  51. There are two sides to that problem. At the same time that many non-dangerous minor offenders -- who pose a risk to no-one else -- are locked in prisons amongst corrupting sociopaths, we have unrepentant, dangerous socio-paths released and roaming our streets searching for fresh victims. We all have known of innocent people seriously injured and even killed by these released, predatory animals.
    We need far more careful screening of those who could benefit by skills training and re-education -- and of those fit only for transfer to forced labor penal colonies, where the Bill of Rights does not apply -- and where the price of daily meals and other "comfort " measures depends on strict, unquestioning obedience and earning of one's keep. Under no-other-option management, those sub-humans could make those things (of equivalent price and quality) that we otherwise must import.

  52. Country of two tales ... clever play on Tale of Two Cities! Nice!

  53. Why should those accused of a crime have to be pressured into pleading guilty? Hey, take this deal or take what is behind "Curtain #2". "If you don't "cop this plea" you are going to get hit with the maximum possible penalty instead of the lowest."

    A guy gets accused of something. He can't afford a lawyer, so he gets a distracted and perhaps incompetent attorney supplied by the state who doesn't have time to truly represent him. So, it is best for everyone in the system to plead the guy out, send him to jail and move on to the next case. The wheels turn.

    The police cheat. They know that getting convictions is difficult, so in many jurisdictions they bend the evidence to put people in jail or hide evidence that might set them free. We know this from hundreds of court cases and specific examples, like Dallas, Texas, which created a special investigation to investigate...itself, because there were so many obvious examples of fudging.

    It is going to take a long time, and a major effort, to walk back from draconian prison sentences. And face this fact, too: one of the main reasons the "lock 'em up" culture was created was racism against black men. It is so much easier to "get tough" on those who are different than yourself.

    The "punishment society" has long roots in our ancient histories. It is a product of a time when the world was defined by scarcity rather than abundance. People don't want to let it go. It is comforting to them.

  54. People advocating ways to reduce crime mean well but usually lack reliable and valid results for their ideas of how to accomplish this task. Most programs implemented to reduce recidivism have no effect on reducing future crime. Programs like bootcamps, electronic monitoring, probation, parole and substance abuse counseling, have dismal results, on par with people released from prisons on their own. In fact, sending people to jail has generally increases a ones' chances of committing new crimes instead of reforming people. The idea that providing jobs will keep a person away from crime seems like a great concept. However, when unemployment was incredibly low (1998 - 2000), crime rates were booming. Today, in the wake record high unemployment, crime rates have been dropping. The one element proven to be effective is psychiatric mental health treatment (demonstrated by NY's Kendra law -possibly the most effective crime reduction program ever). Mental health treatment might not sound like fighting crime but it works better than anything known aside from discouraging people unprepared to be parents from having children.

  55. Prevention in the form of properly educating our young has been very effective.

  56. Although Bill Keller raises many questions about our so-called justice system, a few keep coming to mind for me: Do we have a justice system or a vengeance system? Another one is this: How can those locked up, especially those incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and who pose no threat to society, repay the debt they are considered to owe to society by being in jail at taxpayer expense?

  57. Maybe if people did not commit as much crime, we would not have this issue of prison over-crowding. I live and work in Short Hills, and recently a young man was shot and killed by 2 criminals who made off with his Range Rover. Maybe the criminality is to blame for the rise in incarcerations. Ever think about that?

  58. Maybe if we did a better job of educating our youth we would not be discussing this at all

  59. maybe this crime has a background and could have been prevented ?

    A crime is a crime and must be punished, no need to argue about this.
    But just narrowing every discussion on how to punish an offender wouldn't bring down the rate.
    Desperation, misery, social desintegration are incredients to a criminal behaviour, fight those. Of course this would imply that society is in duty for the outcome of a personal fate, and this would mean a pesky change of everybodies attitude, especially of those who are not likely to turn to get a criminal.

  60. No, it's not. You are factually incorrect. The property and violent crime rates are lower today than thirty years ago when mass incarceration began. Look at the data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics ( Mass incarceration has resulted from rule changes, like the War on Drugs, that has put more people in jail for the same crime rate.

  61. Any law that includes work incentives is a draconian law. I think Jeanie MacPherson's, The Ten Commandments, agrees with this, and I suppose Abraham Lincoln would agree also.

  62. Mr. Keller touches on only part of the madness of the drug war. Conservatives who object to all gun control measures and sneer that Prohibition proves such control programs do not work, seem oblivious to their double standard on drugs. The American drug habit has wrought havoc in Mexico, and Central and South America as our stringent illegality has created drug mafias that rule parts of these cultures. America owes significant arrears to our southern neighbors for the social instability our misguided policies have inflicted on them.

  63. Decriminalize drugs. Drugs should be a medical problem.
    Get rid of the DEA.

  64. We need lots more private prisons, in every state, loaded to the brim with prisoners. This will provide needed jobs.

  65. Education is the best solution and provides employment as well.

  66. And it will be you who will pay for these jobs.

  67. It will be you, who will be paying for these jobs.

    And it will be you who will be a victim of some felony so that offenders can qualify as job-creation measure.

  68. Bill Keller's suggestions for prison reform are belong on the same list as David Brooks' suggestions for broadening the focus to 0-25, and Ross Douthat's suggestions for increasing the number of two-parent families. The difference with the ideas cited by Keller, however, is that they may save as much on spending inside prisons as they cost to fund programs outside prisons.

  69. The fact that we, the United States, jail more people in relation to our population than anywhere on earth represents an admission of failure, both as a democracy (where fairness is supposed to prevail) and as a society.

    This is a massive failure, not a minor one. It represents an inability to arrive at reasonable, alternative sentencing and a desire to punish over having a productive society.

    I have read about cases in Florida where people are taken to jail for not having adequate insurance on their cars. A person loses a job and doesn't have the money to pay insurance, so they wind up in jail. In parts of west Texas, the local sheriff goes on round ups of people who fail to pay misdemeanor fines. So, a minor violation of the law becomes a major one. In Dallas (among other Texas cities) they arrest people for writing an 11 dollar bounced check (I once overhead a store clerk talking about getting her son out of jail in such a charge). In Texas cities generally, they use the local police departments as collection agencies, with the threat of jail, to collect on any "bad checks" that represent citizen complaints.

    Arrest. Arrest. Arrest. In most of our cities, even someone who voluntarily comes to a police station to turn himself in for a non-violent crime is handcuffed. Often, DAs refuse to allow people to turn themselves in, preferring arrest.

    We are, in many ways, a society at war with itself. We can't stamp out drugs, but we can stamp out a generation of young men

  70. The conversation about criminal justice and prisons is just beginning in our country. The states pursuing meaningful reduction in the incarcerated or supervised population do so only because they have nearly bankrupted the public coffers in pursuit of the political benefits of a tough on crime stance.

    More difficult to address are the states where the criminal justice structure is crucial to the economy and in which there is shared financial interest among unions, politicians, the media and a vast criminal justice economy. In Connecticut, with the worst private sector economy in the country and gradually widening economic disparities, criminal justice jobs are increasingly important and coveted . With some of the lowest crime rates in the country, Connecticut still has by far the highest regional rates of incarceration for the simple power of the Corrections Officer's union and the vast economy that criminal justice supports. Yes there are prisons and guards, but there are also judges, prosecutors, court personnel, vast probation, bail bondsmen and State Troopers that actually litigate for minimal staffing levels regardless of need.

    The power of the "tough on crime" myth is stronger than the truth when so much is at stake economically. During the past year, Connecticut's prison population went up as crime rates went down - again. Crime is at historically low levels and the prison population goes up. It is truly amazing.

  71. Want to cut prison costs, then? Make prison a bare-bones, brutal experience that not one person in a thousand would want to repeat. Basic rule: since rehab is a nice idea that simply fails almost all of the time, make the physical prison plant less desirable than the worst place our men and women in uniform have to live. And make them work cleaning up streets and roads and cities, 8-12 hours a day. No TV, no gym, no conjugal visits, nada. Wait five years, review the living arrangements of our armed services personnel, then adjust if needed prison conditions - but never upwards. This will be really tough - not only on convicts, but on the army of assorted social workers who have staked their careers to prisoners. But I will bet anything that you'll see crime rates really, really drop, as recidivism falls.

  72. You're assuming that people who end up in jail are making rational decisions, and that making prison even more brutal than it already is (random violence, sexual assaults, long-term confinement, etc.) will cause offenders to go straight. As a social worker, I'm offended by your comment that members of my profession have "staked their careers to prisoners." In reality, my career (I work in the field of addiction) consists of helping people stay out of jail by dealing with their substance use and finding productive work in the community. Instead of your bloody-minded ranting, why don't you educate yourself about the situation?

  73. How about this....set up a system of jobs cleaning the streets, roads and cities where wages are paid. The streets would be clean; the people cleaning the streets would have money in their pockets, a stake in the community and perhaps less inclination or economic incentive to engage in criminal activity to make money. And how about this...don't judge people based on their vocation because we all like clean streets, don't we? Cleaner, nicer environments encourage appreciation for cleaner nicer environments. There is altogether too much us versus them in this nation.

  74. It is difficult for me to believe than anyone in the yr. 2014 would subscribe to the ideas expressed by Alan Sabrosky as states above. Besides, the tougher than tough idea has been tried many times before, most notably right now in parts of Arizona and Texas. It doesn't work.

    People commit crime for many reasons, but two main reasons are, 1. they don't fit into society and can't hold a job or, 2. they are desperate. Many, many prisoners are mentally ill. Making things tougher on the mentally ill isn't going to change anything at all.

    The biggest punishment of being in prison is being confined, not able to have normal social relations and having no freedom of choice to move about or when and where anything happens in one's life. People routinely go bonkers by being in prison. You want to make it worse? Then you want to release those people back into the free world? I would send them to live across the street from your house.

  75. Another source of continued concern is the practice of state courts of imprisoning individuals for failing to pay an every increasing number of fees and other costs, a new debtors prison system. Combine this practice with a new industry that has grown up as a result of this new practice and you have another conduit to put poor people in jail and make it impossible for them to get out of poverty.

    Privatization of the criminal justice system is wrong and it leads to more prison time and more prison costs not less especially for the poor.

  76. Gosh, did we ever make it out of the poverty of the 50's without all these incarcerations, with educations that met our needs and jobs that fit our skills.?

    By today's standards, our poverty was worse than today's buttressed support systems. Families were largely intact, too. We believed in and worked for a better America.

    One reason there are more in prison today is that there are more crimes. We can't make crimes go away by simply redefining what a crime is. There's no evidence that more probation will resolve any of our societal maladies.

    Our values have been diminished. Our dreams for a better world subdued. America itself is incarcerated.

  77. You are factually incorrect. The property and violent crime rates are actually lower today than they were thirty years ago when mass incarceration began. The reason we have mass incarceration is because of rule changes, like three strikes you're out, the War on Drugs and stricter parole and probation rules. Mass incarceration reflects many more people gong to jail for the same rate of crimes.

  78. Actually, all studies indicate that crime rates have been falling. But, then, there are more people than there were in the "Good Old Days."

  79. This is so stupid on so many levels it's hard to know where to begin. There is no evidence that 1950s poverty was worse than today's and the claim that there are buttressed family support systems in place today is laughable, if you look at the family histories of those in poverty and/or those who have committed crimes. "Crimes" by the way, is a useless term considering that 1/3-1/2 the "crime" in America is non-violent consumption of marijuana. Decriminalize that, and you have a "crime" rate that's half what it has been. Further, the notion that there are no effective probation efforts is wrong; it is exactly what the Urban Institute just reported on in detail in the report that Keller cites. And on and on, in terms of the inaccuracies in the statement above.

  80. I think the saddest thing is a system where the victims themselves are gerrymandered into serving prison sentences for no reason other than inability to cover the cost of the victimization. I know of one case of a bookkeeper hauled into prison because a trusted client gave her a bouncing check and escaped into Mexico scot free while she paid the price. The taint of an unwarranted felony charge has followed her for the rest of her working life.

  81. The most obvious first step is to legalize drugs. All drugs. It will never happen, of course, as we are fixated on the idea that drug users commit crimes because said drugs turn them into mad-dogs, as opposed to the obvious truth that any profitable activity wherein one has no recourse to the law to settle disputes will result in violence.

  82. Drugs often lead to more crime because addicts need money to buy drugs. Addicts sometimes steal or sell their bodies to get money for drugs. Education, education, education. Much good might come of biology and science based drug and reproductive education.

  83. I would change 'legalise' to 'decriminalise' and also remove the word 'all'. Some drugs are extremely dangerous in and of themselves, not just because they are illegal or regulated, and should not be self-prescribed. Oxycodone is one such, and its legitimate medical use is established. LSD may be another, for psychological problems. Heroin may be useful for hospice. I agree we need to rethink our policies and philosophy with regard to drugs, and the trend toward decriminalising and legalising pot is a step in that direction. But people who advocate a free-for-all are just asking for much bigger trouble than we have already.

  84. Educate the masses. Studies have found that this works.

  85. then the notorious criminals become investment-banker ?

  86. Well, technically speaking, burglary is one of those "non-violent crimes" whose perpetrators presumably (according to this op-ed piece) ought not to be placed in prison. Having been burglarized, I can assure you that the personal and psychological trauma to me & my wife - aside from the loss of property and the random vandalization of things we both loved and treasured - made it a form of violence, and had I caught the perpetrator(s) in the act, I would cheerfully have made sure that he/she/them would never have had to worry about languishing in prison or anywhere else - but then, I am a Marine Corps veteran.

  87. And then you have to rely upon the proposed reforms in veteran sentencing to keep from languishing in prison....

  88. In this part of the country, burglars frequently meet with violence while committing the crime. I assume anyone breaking and entering to be a threat to life and limb and prepare to respond with appropriate measures, either 50k volts or double ought buckshot, from a defensive position of course. This community is heavily populated with veterans like Mr. Sabrosky, and we tend to take primary responsibility for situational awareness and self defense. As it now stands, sending that perp to prison will only educate them how better to succeed. I am not, however, advocating for shooting taggers on sight, beating up jaywalking 80 year olds or other highly disproportionate responses. I think Mr. Keller's comments on good police work in NYC are a bit off the mark, given the blatant constitutional violations the NYPD has so joyously indulged in over the past decade. Mr. DeBlasio has an opportunity to make that force much more professional in many ways, I hope he makes good use of it.

  89. While burglary statutes vary by state, in New York at least, burglary of a residence is classified as a violent crime.

  90. "Keeping a 60 year old in prison until he is 65 does next to zero for crime rates." Perhaps. But it depends on the person. A 60-year-old who has no resources and knows only crime may way revert to that life. All inmates who are released need to have a plan for when they are out. Also, it should be noted that there is overlap in criminal behavior. Some burglars are also rapists. Taking all discretion away from judges and giving it to prosecutors was one of the main mistakes in mandatory sentencing. Each case must be reviewed individually. This is not to say that crimes should not have punishments attached, just that there needs to be some discretion in sentencing as well as true follow-up on parolees.

  91. At times keeping a sixty year old in prison keeps many children safe from a sexual predator. Many, many prisoners are there not because of theft but sexual assault.

  92. A note about supervision and parole - these are usually agreed to as a part of a plea bargain in lieu of (draconian) sentencing related to drug laws. What this means is a guilty plea. Then, if you violate your supervision or parole in any way, which often includes parking tickets or other violations that are not considered crime, you are then subject to the full force penalty of the initial plea. Although mentioned here as a possible advantage, it often times results in greater penalties to the offender. Public defenders are even recommending to their clients to take a lower, actual sentence (say 3 years as opposed to 10) if they don't think their clients can stay "clean" for the supervision period (say 5 years).

  93. America with 5% of the world population has 2.3 million people in prison or 25% of the world total. That they are mostly poor and non-violent black and brown drug offenders should come as no surprise. The criminal justice system by intent and practice aims to emasculate and disenfranchise and to socioeconomically shackle black men. The prison-industrial complex generates jobs not only in the public sector but increasingly in the private sector.

    Although more than twice as many white have been arrested every year for decades for all categories of crime as compared to blacks, crime has a black face. Indeed, with the exception of gambling and robbery more whites have been arrested every year for decades for each specific category of crime. Arrests while not prosecutions and convictions are not random events. Whites get a pass particularly for drug offenses which are treated as a medical health care problem. They are treated with empathy as individuals for every other crime. While blacks are persecuted and treated as innately and uniquelty ignorant, immoral, lazy and criminal. See the FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

    But for China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia America would also lead the world in executions. Americans have more than twice as many guns per capita as the next two nations Serbia and Yemen

    Legalize and regulate and educate and tax drugs. Drug use is a health problem. We need reasoned gun control. Less poverty will lower crime. Go after the career chronic/violent types

  94. While I'm all for diverting non-violent offenders from jail, I'm a little skeptical about the willingness of politicians and the public to fund the resources necessary to maintain these individuals safely and productively in the community. There's actually a parallel here to the movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill in the 1960s. Large state hospitals were downsized or closed, the idea being that the savings realized would be reinvested in community care. Well, that hasn't happened. The mental health system is as fragmented and underfunded as it's ever been, and the mentally ill are now more likely to be incarcerated than hospitalized. Unless spending priorities are changed, I predict the same will happen with offenders. Without jobs, housing, and other social services, they'll end up right back where they started.

  95. Excellent column by Mr. Keller on a ghastly problem that makes America the laughing stock of the world - a supposed bastion of freedom with a prison population that is off the charts.

    Here is one small aspect of this absurd situation. From the U.S. Patent office -

    "The U.S. Patent Office issued patent #6630507 to the U.S.Health and Human Services filed on 2/2/2001. The patent lists the use of certain cannabinoids found within the cannabis sativa plant as useful in certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and HIV dementia."

    While tens of thousands of innocent Americans rot in our jails for marijuana offenses, our same government has a patent on pot because of its miraculous ability to treat "certain neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and HIV dementia."

    Then there is the issue of privatization - the holy grail of Republicans. Rather than saving money through supposed efficiency, all we have seen is a huge cash grab at the federal troth, bankrupting states and bloating our prison population to totally insane levels, and now we have prison industrial complex. Sound familiar?

  96. A solution for the current prison and criminal justice system is to create work and education camps. Teaching skills and promoting learning would work across the entire spectrum and change both mindset and motivation for criminal activity. To make it work the ACLU must step aside and become pragmatic as must politicians and the culture. This is not about turning the other cheek and forgive and forget, but about turning the unproductive into productive. The solution is simple; the will to act with reason is the sticking point.

  97. I was friends with a parole officer once. She told me the most of her parolees violated the terms of their probation. In fact she had grown quite cynical about her job. So while parole may work for a minority of prisoners, most are going to end up back in prison. This unfortunate fact should be kept in mind by those who think parole will solve the problem of too many criminals.

  98. Most such violations are technical--eg, someone did not show up for a scheduled interview check, or came in a day late, or other non-criminal actions. What's ridiculous is sending someone back to prison because they committed a technical violation of parole. Is that worth $30,000 a year to reincarcerate them?

  99. Given the huge number of nonviolent offenders doing time for being caught up in the war on drugs, a major way to deal with the problem of incarceration is simply: Legalization. Save imprisonment for those who truly deserve it: the bankers, corporate officers, and their political minions who have been robbing us blind. As to the millions of poor and middle class who have been caught up in the plea-bargaining affront to justice: storm the Bastille and let them out.

  100. We are saving lives by incarcerating criminals.
    To suggest that we save lives by releasing criminals to prey upon others is nonsense.

  101. You need to do some research before you weigh in on this topic, obviously. Do you realize that a majority of the people locked up in our prisons and jails are in there for non-violent crimes? In one prison or jail I read about recently, 78% of the inmates were there for non-violent drug offenses. We are locking people up for years at a time and warehousing them - taking away all hope that they will EVER overcome their mistake - and then saddling them with a felony record that will prevent them from being able to rent a home, qualify for financial aid to go to college, or get a job, maybe for the rest of their lives, and they are young men - with 40, 50 or 60 years yet to live! Whose lives are you saving by locking up these non-violent offenders?

  102. Delancey Street in San Francisco and other cities has achieved amazing results with previously incarcerated individuals: google it.

  103. Mr. Keller fails to note that America locks up more people per capita than any other nation on earth--exceeding even the incarceration rates of so-called "police states."

    And he understates the cost when he says "the annual per-inmate cost of prison approaches the tuition at a good college."

    In fact, at an estimated annual average north of $36,000--it surpasses the cost of tuition at "good colleges"--and lands just shy of the tuition at an Ivy League school.

    Like Harvard.

    "The 2013-2014 cost of attending Harvard College without financial aid is $38,891 for tuition ..."

    And I wish Mr. Keller had spoken not just with "a wide range of criminal justice experts" but some of the demographers who have noted that the overwhelming majority of crimes are committed by young men, ages 16 to 24, and argued that rising and falling crime rates may well be driven less by our criminal "justice" system and more by changes in the percent of our population that fit that demographic.

  104. I think we know the answer, it's just that we do not have the will to do it.

    Number one, a comprehensive mental health system that actually handles the core problems people face and not just patting them into better behaviors with hundreds of "behavioral health" band-aids. Overwhelmingly, the reason people get sucked into the current criminal system is the fall out of trying to handle mental illness with absolutely no resources and the condemnation of our society heaped up on top of that.

    Number two, fix the inequality of wealth, income and opportunity. Our system presently is little different from the loaf of bread of Les Miserables. It's not just crime either. Employers who capriciously deal with employees desperate to do anything to keep their minimum wage contract job with the equivalent of Old South style straw bosses at temp agencies managing hundreds of workers, having a job is not that much different than jail. This is just one example.

    Make education more affordable and available to workers of all ages with full buyin of business. In a work environment where statistically a person changes their occupation five times in their lives but hurdles effectively keep people from attaining even one, crime is the alternative. Business has so externalized the cost of training onto workers then use workers who paid for their training like paper towels in their bathroom because they've made it easier to fire and replace people than train them. Crime is easier.

  105. Thank you for your well-articulated response to this societal problem!

  106. While I agree with much of what you say, I am not sure about your recommendation "“Ban the box” initiatives encourage employers to eliminate the box on job applications that asks if you have ever been arrested."

    Strictly speaking, an employer should know what crime an employee has committed. Maybe someone wants to drive a school bus who has been guilty of a violent crime.

    But then maybe in a tight market an employer might ban someone who did something minor. The issues are complex. How do we see t it that employers receive the information but act intelligently?

    Also, in a tight job market, is it not going to be the case that when a felon is employed, some non-felon is NOT employed? Is that fair?

  107. Re-read. The box is not on applications. If an applicant is sufficiently qualified to get to the interview stage, the employer can then ask the question, which gives the applicant a chance to explain. In some cases the charges were dropped or dismissed - arrest is just that, arrest, not trial or conviction. Someone might be arrested on suspicion of DUI but have it dropped when it turns out he was weaving to avoid an obstacle on a dark road. In some cases it may be a real offence but one that is minor or explicable, e.g., a college student caught with pot, a 19-year-old charged with statutory rape by the father of his 16-year-old girlfriend. And in some cases the explanation may go on for 25 minutes, with guitar accompaniment, ending with 'and we was fined $25 and had to go pick up the garbage in the snow.'

  108. Hawaii has a system which the rest of the country might look to. The question of convictions can only be raised after a job offer is made, and a positive answer can only disqualify an applicant if the conviction has some relevance to the job duties. So, having been convicted of Income Tax fraud is not going to keep you from a job as a gardener, but it will keep you out of an accounting firm.

  109. Dang, you make me to just want to cry. How 'bout this? Why can't people just keep their five finger discount fingers off other peoples property?
    i need to believe if a person is trying their families will do all they can to keep them on the straight and narrow. But, i.e., if the goal of so many offenders is to leave school (too much work) as soon as possible, then the families, not society, have failed to deliver the message: we love you, we need you and how can we help you.
    The answer? Acceptance of responsibility and willingness to do the work that is too hard. Personally I refuse to accept responsibility for errant behavior when the answer was and is in the family circle.

  110. All of this misses the point! its like the unneeded missile sites and other government programs whose only purpose is to provide employment in politicians districts. prisons are the major industry in upstate New York.

  111. Prisons are not "overstuffed" if they are "stuffed" with convicted criminals. Mass crime requires "mass incarceration". The cost of imprisoning a criminal is far less to society than the cost to society in the crimes they commit and the criminal justice expenses they create.

  112. The USA must place severe restrictions on the coersive tactic known as plea bargaining. Although the Supreme Court has stated than plea bargaining in not coersion it most certainly is. At least 95% of all felony charges never make it to a jury who in most cases would find the defendant not guilty. Prosecuters over charge defendants basically forcing them to take pleas and do time. Plea bargain deals sre nothing less than extortion forcing innocent and non violent persons to agree to prison terms.

  113. One of the issues that continues to contribute to the cycle of overstuffed prison population is the 3 strikes and your out laws written by ALEC and passed by many state legislatures with absolutely no idea what they were supporting. Americans should vote carefully and reject the tough law and order legislatures, sheriffs, and prosecutors who are taking money from ALEC and passing and enforcing laws that make no sense and are specifically developed to enrich companies and damage communities. Voters need to look at responsible law enactment and enforcement not politicians with agendas.

  114. There are some good suggestions and experiments mentioned in Mr. Keller's column. However, readers should know that the PLEA BARGAIN is coercive and is banned in a number of countries. Its purposes in America are that it 1) expedites sentencing in America's overburdened criminal "justice" system and, 2) it gives the prosecutors a powerful way of getting a guilty plea easily.

    Well over 90% of cases in the criminal courts are decided by use of the plea bargain. In a number of these cases, the accused is innocent of the crime charged but agrees to plead guilty to a lesser charge in order (among other reasons) to avoid staying in jail for weeks or even months because the accused can't afford the bail. Who says that debtors' prison no longer exists?

    So, to help make the criminal "justice" system more just, eliminate the plea bargain as other civilized nations have.

  115. Police are now mindless drones deployed as collection agents for our bank owned world. They have targeted those who once "Protected and Served" and now hire the lowest thinkers into their new jobs programs to fleece us all for their senseless laws. $197, for jaywalking in LA and a senior citizen beaten for jaywalking in NYC. The bankers have turned “Protect and Serve” into private revenue agents, and all our so-called laws into a mockery.

  116. Good column, but here are two more options.

    * Invest more in education -- from pre K to 12 and at the college level. Make state universities essentially free and provide things like child care on site. I'll never forget a very young woman in my calculus class who came from one of the worst school systems, yet with hard work could maintain a solid B. One day she missed an exam to take her 6 month old daughter to an ER. I lost track of her, but I know that the cost of doing everything possible to get her an engineering degree leading to a job, instead of a drop-out on welfare would have been worth it.

    * For those in prison, a more humane version of the old *chain gangs* should be tried -- one that would train them for jobs after they are released. I recently read about a program in NM that trained low-risk inmates to fight forest fires. This led to camaraderie with people outside the prison system and jobs upon release. Instead of letting them languish in prison interacting with hardened criminals, put first offenders into programs like this.

  117. Some data from the DOJ Bureau of Justice statistics for state and federal systems might be useful here:

    Violent crime offenders are ~48% of the prison pop. avg. sentence for current conviction ~118 mos.

    Property offenders are ~17% of pop. avg sentence ~33 mos.

    Drug offenders are ~22% of pop. avg sentence ~80 mos.
    note: possession offenders are ~6% of pop; avg sentence ~5 mos.

    Public offenders are ~13% of pop; avg sentence ~33 months. (this includes immigration, civil rights violations, drunk driving, weapons, etc)

    So the first question is:

    Does the US sentence criminals too harshly for the crimes they commit? It doesn't appear that way from the data, especially for violent crimes which appear pretty lenient. Except for one area that is glaring. Black offenders avg longer sentences than white by a long shot. ~1.5 to ~1.8 times as long for the same crime. That iis staggering and warrants closer scrutiny for repeat offenders, especially for repeat felony offenders. If the current data is consistent for races across repeat status, then we have a serious racial bias in sentencing, not necessarily for convicting.

    The second question is whether our judicial system sentencing should be to punish transgressors or to rehabilitate them.

    I would submit that from time immemorial, the purpose of sentencing is to punish transgressors for the harm they impose upon their victims and social tranquility. Otherwise, you would have tribal and family justice meted out.

  118. It’s naïve to say that non-violent offenders don’t belong in prison. Bernie Madoff committed no physical violence, after all.

    Rather, we must distinguish between predatory crimes and non-predatory crimes, i.e., those that violate the rights of others (burglary, embezzlement, identity theft, etc.) and those that don’t (mostly drug possession and consensual transactions between adults).

    True criminal justice reform requires re-thinking how we define crime in the first place, not simply what we do with people once they are branded criminals.

  119. The paragraph on supervision seems to boil down to one insight: if you want supervision to work, you must actually do it. Duh. As for "banning the box," the fact that someone has been arrested is nobody's business; only convictions are. Many people are arrested on slight suspicion, or because a police officer thinks they've shown a hint of disrespect (I've seen it), or to meet quotas -- er, productivity targets -- or just to remind certain "types" that they're being watched.

  120. The privatization conversation is a red herring.

    I personally think it is more shameful to spend taxpayer dollars to increase academic and economic disparities with the support of taxpayer dollars. Prisons and criminal justice is a public economy more focused on creating and maintaining jobs than in promoting public safety.

    Connecticut has the largest academic achievement gap in the country. The 10 communities with the largest academic achievement gaps are the same 10 communities with the highest rates of incarceration. Taxpayer dollars are buying these results. Is this more virtuous than private prisons? In a tough on crime state like Connecticut, there is no political will to do anything progressive regarding criminal justice, so the public prisons are political statements of disdain and rage. The impact on the communities most directly involved is a disgrace. I personally believe private prisons might inject some humanity.

  121. Question 1:
    Where will jobs come from? If there are not enough jobs right now that pay a livable wage, what happens when 650,000 more people - the current rate of those leaving the criminal justice system each year - confront the job market? Eliminating the "box" means nothing if there are no jobs available. Will they be trading one form of subsidized poverty for another?

    Question 2:
    How will the racial inequality be diminished? None of the solutions account for that. Having spend 15 terrible years in the financial industry, I know for a fact that if you ran stop and frisk on Wall St and the Hamptons you would soon draw a correllation between Armani suits, Gucci loafers, Hermes ties and stashes of weed, coke and other drugs. What can we do to apply laws and law inforement initiaties more evenly across all communities?

  122. It is not too cynical to suggest that capitalists saw a potential for profit in incarceration, and used their influence and money to 1) stoke public fear of inner city black men, 2) lobby congress to pass draconian laws, 3) financed private investors who wanted to build prisons, and 4) keep a steady supply of "residents" coming in. Meanwhile, men on Wall Street have committed financial crimes that have all but wiped out the middle class of this country and ensured them complete power.

  123. Just think how many more jobs would need to be available if we didn't incarcerate so many or covertly force so many people into the military. The lack of human foresight is astonishing.

  124. yes job creation is critical- FDR solved that problem by creating the CCC and many a young man ended up planting a whole forrest full of trees that are now being harvested.

    Good idea- take the money from military and prison and create real jobs for the environment and we still to this day admire the handiwork of the CCC in our woods and manny a postoffice with beautiful murals from the FDR decisions to get jobs to the people.

    It took a very wealthy man like FDR to really care for the poor--I realize these people are rare but lets somebody like him will control the plutocrats.

  125. Perhaps we should ask Australia what works as it was a penal colony in history, and probably still has some criminal elements to deal with. How does their system look compared to ours?

  126. What "worked" in Australia's penal colony would now be called cruel and unusual punishment. I recommend Robert Hughes' history 'The Fatal Shore'. Colonial Australia is not really a model to emulate.

  127. Having been reading US media for years it seems that in the US prosecutors regularily just force some suitable innocents (or bystanders) into prison through plea-bargaining while leaving the actual culprits on the road. Just in order to avoid work, get quick results and look good. Everybody outside the US is just hilarious when Americans talk about there "great and fair" judicial system.

  128. This so much reminds me of the plight of freed slaves in which slavery was replaced by Jim Crow. Do we really think that newly released felons have a decent chance to become productive members of the middle class, or will they be consigned to lower class status indefinitely?

    We have shown several times over that it is easier to create an underclass than it is to restore it to full and equal status as citizens.

  129. My father spent 44 years in the prison "business"--local (a political embarrassment), federal, and state. In all those years, he could count on one hand the inmates who were genuinely "corrected" or rehabilitated. Most of the inmates were already poorly educated, had no family lives, and knew of no other way of life. Most correctional officers were also poorly educated and inclined to be biased as the number of minority inmates grew. What a sad, embarrassing situation!

  130. headline recently stated that half the rapes in prison are committed by the guards.

    I do not want to discredit any guards who are reaching out to the prisoners in good ways and there are plenty of those too but the system has a lot of bad apples as well.

  131. It all comes down to ending a system described by sociologist Michelle Alexander as "The New Jim Crow".

    It works like this:
    1. Arrest and prosecute approximately 1/3 of black men for actions that are crimes but receive little-to-no penalty when committed by white men.
    2. Rig the "justice" system so that these black men are sent to prison, while their white counterparts are given a very stern talking to.
    3. When these black men get out of prison, they are now ineligible to vote, serve on juries, cut off from any public assistance, and prevented from working legitimate jobs.
    4. Then we start moralizing when these same men, with no other way to survive, attempt to support themselves with crime. We also ignore the possibility that black men in this situation might do more harm than good if they tried to be involved fathers (exposing their children to risky people, or at least being another mouth to feed that mom can't afford to have around).
    5. Give white America a large dose of "scary black guys" in the news and popular media so that they'll continue to support this system and have no idea what the lives of black men are actually like.

    End that system of injustice, and approximately 75% of incarcerated inmates would be free. Problem solved. Plus a lot of other problems solved.

  132. I guess one can hope that reason along with fear of crushing costs (and, thus, higher taxes) will motivate the public to support more sensible law enforcement policies. But the "trail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em,” philosophy which you cite is evidence of one thing the public will never have when it comes to those who are caught breaking the law. And that's something called empathy.

    Though undoubtedly catchy and, maybe to some, even cute, the phrase also reveals how much those who are 'nailed' are considered almost subhuman. Of course, that's true only for so long as someone you know and love doesn't become one of those who is 'nailed.'

    And, to me at least, that's too bad. And I mean that from a practical, not an airy-fairy "Christian/golden rule" perspective (though that perspective, too---for those capable of it---is also nice). To me, treating others the way you would like them to treat you actually ends up making it more likely that they will begin to not only respect you more but to act more like you.

    I think it's called reaping what you sow.

  133. Way too much money and political capitol as well as human tragedy has been purely the fault of the so called War on Drugs, which actually became a self-sustaining industry by busting poor folks, ones who did not have the money or family backing to be able to hire good lawyers.

    It has all been about the money. Police departments have whole divisions dedicated towards busting druggies and other low level offenders, usually because they are out doing something foolish under the influence, and are thus easy to spot. Federal monies come in from programs to deter drugs, and so our prisons have been filled to overcrowding with people who were mostly just exercising the normal human right to put into their own bodies what they want to.

    Presently it is a matter of laws that were used to try to derail the 'Hippy', anti-war movements that ended Viet Nam and are just ugly cultural holdovers from that time. They have now become enshrined and self-reinforcing because they are highly profitable to a handful of people, many police depend on these laws for their funding and other, more violent crimes often dont get the funding needed to solve them since the monies are going towards the War on Drugs. The big winners are the owners of the privatized jails, who get tens of thousands of dollars more a year per inmate than we spend on students in our schools, people on workfare programs or anything else, and it is bleeding us dry and destroying families both.

    Decriminalize substance use.

  134. It is a mistake to assume more money , taken from substance abuse arrests which are useless and stupid, can be used to somehow, perhaps magically "solve" other crimes. Crime is a thing that can be prevented by having a well maintained civil society, with good schools and decent paying jobs for citizens , but it is not subject to cure by "solving" crimes . There are no real life Sherlock Holmes's in the world of police activity. Police,"police" society-they watch and maintain order, just keep things running. They are not nor have ever been equipped to "fix" each and every infraction of the criminal laws. This is the responsibility of the citizens themselves and no amount of newspaper crusading or taxpayer money can change the way civil society works or people think.
    Crime is not a personal affront. If most criminals had the means they wouldn't choose to be criminals. Once in such company, and among the police-who are usually the worst and most frequent offenders because of their predilection for bending and twisting laws to suit their own ends, they are socialized into the system that expects them to be recycled through the prisons until they die.

  135. Yikes! Congratulations! Something of value added to the column. I have on occassion (e.g., family celebrations in my home) been guilty of "substance abuse", but the "substance" was alcohol.

  136. None of these strategies address the pervasive problem of violent behavior. Gary Slutkin, Professor, Epidemiology and International Health, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, and the Founder of Cure Violence offers a compelling argument that "violence is like a disease and can be treated like one. Violent behavior follows the model of contagious and infectious diseases, and the same approach to prevention guides strategies for reducing violence, with more predictable results." This approach would add a valuable dimension to this discussion.

  137. just look at the fllms that are peddled with glorified blowing up of building , crashing cars, bloody knife cuts, grotesque creatures, end of the world scenes etc etc and celebrating Quiten Tarantino the director who makes box office hits using huge doses of violence. Vote with your feet and do not buy a ticket to see those stupid movies.

  138. I thought the article was about incarceration of "nonviolent" 'offenders'. From the column: "As crime rates have dropped, the public has registered support for reforms that would have fewer nonviolent offenders languishing in prison."

  139. It is difficult to understand the rational for dumping released prisoners out on the street especially those that have been incarcerated for a long period with no family support. So we continue to punish them after they have ben released by making it difficult if not impossible to seek employment. They resort to living on the street and trying to survive which results in repeat offenders. This cycle needs to be addressed with in prison training and counseling and half way houses to permit them to reintegrate into society.

  140. One problem that never seems to come up is priors. Often, people who are diverted have warrants out in other counties or states that haven't been picked up by the system. In diversion programs, even those who want to turn things around hit this wall which may be of their own making, causes them to slip back into bad behavior in frustration. We need to find a way to clean up offenders legally as well as physically and emotionally to help them (and us as a society) return to a normal, productive life. Better record sharing combined with concurrent sentencing based on the offenses would seem to be one way to help. Consideration for those offenders who volunteer information on their priors might also be part of the solution.

    Kudos to Target. Not having a job is the biggest problem of all.

  141. This article does not address the fact that well over 100,000 prisons are privately owned. The owners have a strong incentive to keep their prisons full, so they campaign against more enlightened policies about incarceration. I had been unaware of private prisons until I read that Laura Bush had invested in stocks offered by privately owned prisons.

  142. thanks Ms Bennett-- Laura Bush invests in private prison system -- again we learn not to vote for Republicans - profit ueber alles.

  143. I repost my quote:
    "The quest for safe and humane alternatives to lockup faces opposition from prosecutors protecting their leverage, from corrections employee unions protecting jobs and from a private prison industry protecting profits. (Private prison operators, who house about 9 percent of prison inmates, have a vested interest in keeping prisons full because they are paid based on occupancy.)"
    Did you read the column, or not ?

  144. Judges and other elected officials think they have to be tough on crime to get re-elected. Never mind the expense and human misery associated with their draconian attitude. The important thing is to get re-elected.

  145. The President and his attorney general Eric Holder are behind rehab but the US House and some in the Senate do not support this policy that is good in the long run for everybody. How to get the voters to the polls in 2014 who could make that difference? We all need to go door to door and register and encourage.
    Have Hope will campaign !

  146. In the never-ending battle for more tax cuts for the rich, prisons are an expense to cut. It is that, and nothing to do with mercy or rehabilitation at all, that is leading to these changes in incarceration.

  147. As long as the very rich and well connect are more likely to be rewarded than to be held accountable, they will continue and encourage others like them to greedily swindle as much money as possible from the masses, leaving the masses with very little hope of a decent & honest living.
    If there is ever to be a change for the better, there has to be more hope of success and not what we are seeing these days where the rich are getting richer, faster than any time in history and doing Nothing productive and helpful for 98% of the worlds population.

  148. I wonder why I see no mention of for-profit prisons in this column? Mega prison businesses such as the Corrections Corporation of America want to make money by putting more people in prison. These prison giants have lobbyists. For-profit prisons are about as good an idea as for-profit fire departments.

  149. for profit everything according to some politicians -- don't vote for them and we know who they are. Get busy and get the vote out in 2014 .

  150. Did you READ and comprehend the column? Perhaps you didn't understand the use of the word "private" in the following:
    "The quest for safe and humane alternatives to lockup faces opposition from prosecutors protecting their leverage, from corrections employee unions protecting jobs and from a private prison industry protecting profits. (Private prison operators, who house about 9 percent of prison inmates, have a vested interest in keeping prisons full because they are paid based on occupancy.)"
    You mus have missed "protecting profits".

  151. Ban the box probably does not go far enough. There is no sense of Forgiveness in the system. With electronic databases, people are forced to carry the weight of their mistakes... forever. If they have served their time, then they must be forgiven by the system, including potential employers. Nice job, Bill.

  152. Well, starting out w/ solid early education, good nutrition along with the assurance of real jobs would be a start followed by addressing the serious issue of this "for profit industry" would be a good start. The "for profit" aspect is what really concerns me....this should not be a profit driven "business".....prisons are not "businesses" nor should they be classified as such.

  153. "...But it raises an important question: What is the alternative?"
    Possibly you could take in a couple of these former prisoners until they get back on their feet, Mr. Keller. That is where the rubber meets the road for liberals. You can help, can't you? I'm sure you live in a nice safe neighborhood where you don't have to worry about your safety or property. It would do you good to get some real world experience before you become the expert you seem to think you are. Charity begins at home, your home.

  154. There is a great need for reform in the USA. Millions of families have been destroyed because of the Industrial Complex we call Prison. I agree with the statement included in the article entitled America On Probation that stated. "America has long been more inclined than other developed countries to treat crime as a disposal problem; “trail ’em, nail ’em and jail ’em,” is our tough-on-crime slogan." You failed to include one other "Destroy 'em". Once an inmate has been arrested, charged, and serves his sentence he is released to a life that holds NOTHING for him or her. He is unable to be employed because he is an ex-con, he is unable to receive educational assistance, he is unable to vote, he is unable to even receive government benefits. Therefore what is he or she truly left with? He can not provide support for himself or his family. He has no hope of ever improving the circumstances of his life. . We speak about the Drug War as if it is or was an answer. It has not solved anything, but it has created much. We punish the minorities and the poor as if they are the cause of drugs in America, yet the real criminals are free to keep manufacturing and shipping their drugs into the country. Prisons have become no more than a business in America. Profiting on human life. Sound familiar?

  155. The rise of the for-profit prison/industrial complex has been a disaster for the US economy. The politicians responsible for wasting billions of taxpayer dollars incarcerating non-violent "offenders" should be held accountable. The money could be used to employ people much more productively in other sectors of the economy.

  156. Just curious: are the politicians you mention DEMOCRATS or REPUBLICANS?

  157. As a social worker I have been involved with criminal defendants for over five years. This work comes on the foundation of years of involvement with people living with disabilities and research on urban and state issues.
    The key component of any Diversion program and any Re-Entry planning is Treatment. Treatment begins by identifying the behaviors/traumas that brought the person into the criminal justice system. The next step is constructing a program that teaches the prison resident new responses to the old problems of physical abuse, financial insecurity, and/or learning difficulties that led to the criminal offense.
    The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study supported by the Centers for Disease Control and the US Department of Health and Human Services provides some insight into the effects of cumulative trauma on a child's development. In my experience many people come into the criminal justice system because a threatening traumatic circumstance triggered a frightened response. The adult behavior was stuck in a child's learned reaction. A Diversion program and a successful Re-Entry into the community teaches the individual different responses to those old frightening situations.

  158. What a catalog this nation has developed. We speak of income inequality but divorce that from health care, day care, education, jobs, credit, pensions, prison, long-term care, etc.

    if we are serious about equal opportunity, we must give everyone an fair chance at success. that means a decent standard of living, free of institutional bias.

  159. Prosecutors use these long sentences not to bring justice but to circumvent justice. They use these laws to deny all but the most privileged of us the right to a jury of our peers. A jury of peers is one of the best ways to restrict the power of the state and its ability to take from us our very freedom. Nowadays when faced with a virtual life sentence for almost any crime alleged by the state, very few of us can afford the risk of a trial by our peers. Thus we are coerced by the state into giving up a trial in which we can plead our case, not to the state, but to our fellow Americans and thus we come closer and closer to the tyranny of a national security state.

  160. It's all connected isn't it.
    First we allow the Republican party to convince the gullible in America that money is the only value, resulting in a scramble for wealth, and rampant inequality. Then when the people without money, knowing they are of no value to society, act on this knowledge by refusing to obey society's rules, we lock them up. A result much approved of by the Republican party, and in fact largely initiated by this group.
    Then we gripe about the cost of the prisons (you know how Republicans HATE government spending) and look at ways to release those people who still look on themselves as largely without social value. And so those people either return to their former ways, or they drop out - become homeless.
    The answer to this problem is not to be found in reforming prisons, it is to be found in thecrejection of the Republican party and all it stands for.

  161. Mr. Keller, you mention charter schools at the end of your article. Charter schools are as bad as private prisons. Tax dollars, usually property tax dollars are being siphoned away from the public schools and given to for profit charter schools. Don't get me started on the tens of thousands of senior citizens and the unemployed losing their homes they spent a lifetime paying for because they can no longer afford the annual tax bill.

  162. There are two issues that involve prosecutors. How constrained are they budgets? Are they under pressure to plea bargain to save money rather than doing justice.

    Of those arrested, how many are guilty of some crime. Is the need to plea bargain so often a result of guilty people being arrested without enough evidence without to convict?

  163. Q- "We may be getting over our peculiar love of prisons. But if not prisons, what? " A- Crime in the streets!

  164. Here is a very cheap rehabilitation: Hve the prisoners view Book TV on C-Span which is running all weekend without commercials and is about authors of new books discussing their books at bookstores with the audience asking questions--- what is not to like?

    Yes nobody will make money turning on the TV and making it a priviledge to watch but you have a captive audience and you might just find a new writer amongst the group. How about just watching how to play the gitar and then try to follow the instructions-- low cost on that too.

    Prisoners should not only be urged to pray to God. God wants people to learn too not only pray.

  165. I am encouraged to see increased awareness and public scrutiny of a most unfair, illogical trend in our criminal justice and penal systems. This is a welcomed editorial piece but one that only scratches the surface. Two additional emphases (one briefly touched upon) include the phenomena of post-deinstitutionalization criminalization (prosecuting individuals whose offenses reflect their mental illness or developmental disability [i.e., no criminal intent] that require treatment, not punishment) and the burgeoning prison complex industry (rapid expansion of US inmate population due to socio-political/economic influences similar to the military-industrial complex in the 1959s.) The real travesty here is that there are viable alternatives seen by an increasing number of problem-solving courts, jail diversion, and community treatment programs. For those of us engaged in this type of collaborative work, even after teasing out factors such as ultra-conservative attitudes toward retribution, it all comes down to money and priorities. Each year, an increasing number of empirical studies demonstrate a simple, time-worn truth that a little money spent upfront saves much more in the end. The real question is, how to get the right people to listen and then encourage them to resist economic and political influences and do the right thing.
    William Packard, Ph.D. (author of Intellectual Disability and the Criminal Justice System: Solutions through Collaboration)

  166. We need rrehabilitation to start the moment a person is imprisoned- instead there are rules that nothing is done until three years before prisoners get out. That might be too late.

    There is no comparison of our prison system and other civilized countries. Norway for example has a maximum of about 21 years imprisonment .

    However, thanks for bringing this topic up Bill Keller and we need to keep on focusing on how private and public incarceration is working and not working.

  167. . . . and Sweden just closed four of its prisons because the number of violent crimes has been cut in half since the nineties. You'd think that criminologists would be flocking there to learn.

  168. The source of the problem is the Justice System, especially in the South. The Innocence Project should be infused with billions in govt support and within a few years, a great percentage of wrongfully accused prisoners will no longer be filling the jails.

    And drug laws, the biggest contributor to boosting incarceration, need a giant overhaul, with sentencing reserved for big dealers of dangerous drugs ... not users or marijuana dealers.

  169. "Big dealers of dangerous drugs would be a liquor wholesaler or brand, Right?

  170. In Colorado we have done something pretty amazing in regard to decreasing our prison population. We have decided that the crime of smoking pot is no longer a crime. (Disclaimer; 45 years ago I spent a couple months in jail for smoking pot.)
    This experiment should be followed at some point by decriminalizing most of the rest of the recreational drugs. Take the obscene profits out of the drug business and the attendant crime associated with getting high will disappear. At least that is a theory that should be given a chance to succeed or fail based on facts and reality, instead of just the mythology that a drug addict is a failed human being who deserves nothing more that a lock up.
    It would be a start.

  171. As marijuana become a hot button issue republican fence jumpers are changing their long and ignorant fluctuating stance on a flower. Now Rick Perry and other’s follow president Obama’s lead on marijuana as one million people die a year from alcohol, not to mention fetal alcohol syndrome. The countless functional adults I know (including, cops, lawyers, judges, doctors, priests to name a few) who smoke or consume marijuana products, hold jobs and help society. This same demographic group (including, cops, lawyers, judges, doctors, priests to name a few) who consume alcohol are primarily cigarette smoking dysfunctional alcoholics. Try to smoke enough weed to match any alcohol induced hangover. Most laws are simply attempts to solve perceived problems. Laws equals revenue. Ignorance equals ignorance. Now throw religion into this toxic mix. The long misuse of the teaching’s of Christ by the in-bread greedy and power-hungry, (the same group meeting last week at the world economic forum under the guise of helping us) held their annual meetings of gluttony and self-congratulatory insanity to further militarize the planet while simultaneously poisoning us with their genetically modified poison food, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, ridiculous news media-mind control system while raging personal wars in the name of democracy are only concerned with protecting their stolen fortunes and power while blind one issue voters drink the kool-aid with vodka.

  172. When something is obviously not working America seems to do more of it. We are a cut off your nose to spite your face culture with absolutely no sense. The only way to fight crime is through employment. People don't like to live on handouts. The view of middle class and upper class Americans that the poor are just loving it sitting around collecting welfare ( which by the way is a myth anyway with the introduction of TANF) is a fallacy. Everyone wants a chance at working and bettering themselves.

    As a society that plays lip service to the value of work and then denigrates people for working at certain jobs we have no moral ground to stand on. To not pay people a livable wage for working is not only a travesty but confusing. When the poor are not working are told that they are lazy yet when the do work they are told they are lazy. How does anyone expect a person in the lower classes to better themselves but when they try to do so they are criticized as not doing anything productive. Yet without stock people, hamburger flippers, order takers, cashier, etc businesses could not serve their customers. Workers are not stupid and know this to be true. So where do these people turn? To drugs to salve their pain? To petty crime to supplement the paltry wages they are paid? Then we throw them into jail guaranteeing they will never get a decent job. We put the poor in a catch 22 situation and then criticize and criminalize them for trying to survive.

  173. Incarcerating people is very expensive for states and highly lucrative for private industry. This is the same private industry that cries too big government so we the tax payers can support them.

  174. In a career of 35 years the first 15 were spent as a police officer, the remainder as a probation/parole officer. My caseload, as a PO, went from 66 to over 240 (when I retired). One of the major factors not discussed is the lack of discretion of our police officers. "Back in the day" officers often settled problems in the community without resorting to the courts. In the 70's and 80's society changed, the police were no longer seen as part of the community and relegated to their cruisers to be called upon only when needed. Many of the "offenses" that today result in court were settled within communities, between families and neighbors. And the police were seen as part of the solution. Today that community support isn't there and, for the average police officer, the only way to resolve these "disputes" is a citation for court. Officers went from "what I can we all do to resolve this" to "Cite everyone to court and let them figure it out". To expect that simply improving sentencing options will resolve this problem is failing to see the real issues. Society itself bears much of the responsibility for this. Like so much else in our communities we want someone else to solve our problems, then complain when it doesn't work.

  175. It seems the deepest need of Americans is to feel superior. This end predominates until it costs money. Fortunately, Texan's aversion to spending money on anything that does not benefit business or other PRIVATE interests has cut into its enthusiasm for creating a shunned class of evil others that must be de-humanized to make abuse seem the norm.

  176. Mr. Keller trivializes the damges caused by criminal acts. If he or a loved one were the unfortunate victim of a crime, he would retract his witty phrase "trail'em,nail'em, and jail'em."

  177. Why? Do any of those approaches help crime victims? Crime victims are the real losers in our system because we punish in torture in their name, without providing any real support for victims. In many cases they are re-victimized by having no say in the result (remember, victims are NOT a party in a criminal case, they are simply witnesses for the government, victim's rights rhetoric notwithstanding).
    Remember, most crime victims suffer the same poverty and racist-infused risk factors as most people who commit crime. That's what made them more likely to be victimized in the first place. In our country, why are the most outspoken advocates of incarceration the ones who have the least to fear statistically (e.g., overwhelmingly white and middle class)?

  178. Prisons and Jails may be the only decent places left to get a free meal, roof on the head, a clean shower and medical care when needed in these days of mass firings (so the CEOs can make bigger bonus by jacking up profits), outsourcing of jobs to China (no pollution controls, safety regulations, prison-like dorms to house millions working 12hr/day, 6-7days/week cheap laborers uprooted from families) so the CEOs and their top honchos can make bigger bonus by jacking up profits, elimination of extended unemployment and food stamps so the CEOs and their top honchos don't have to pay too much taxes on their millions, U.S. War Machine of the Military-Industrial complex spilling bombs, blood, bodies and dollars in every corner of the world so the companies run by these CEOs and their honchos can sell more around the world and make more profits. Adding insult to the injury the corrupt politicians laud these blood sucking corporate mongers as job creators. Where have you gone, America?

  179. Communities aren't the root of crime. Criminals are.

    But we should think about what we define to be criminal. Why should non-violent drug manufacture, possession, use and sale be crimes when non-violent alcohol and tobacco manufacture, possession, use and sale are legal? Alcohol and tobacco are more harmful than most illegal drugs. Redefining crime to allow for this could enable us to reduce our prison population several-fold.

  180. "Communities aren't the root of crime. Criminals are."

    Every bit of quality empirical research says the opposite. Also, your points contradict one another. If "crime" is based on definitions, as you point out, then it is truly a social construction that DOESN'T rely on inherent individual "badness" or "criminality". Change the definition and now someone is no longer a "criminal"? Based on your own argument, crime is COMPLETELY a social phenomenon.

  181. Many of the three strikes and mandatory sentencing laws passed in the last 40 years were obviously stupid and cruel, even at first glance. How does the American public keep getting stampeded into supporting these really bad decisions, another of which is the Iraq War? Are the media failing us by uncritically magnifying the lies and inanities of the political class?

  182. Way back in the 70's I got a job working for a "pre-trial" diversion program in the NY City courts. The objective was to take offenders out of the system and help them with schooling, work and counseling them on their future.
    That was 40 years ago. We still don't have it together to do this through out this nation ?
    As a P.S. - I lost the job when NYC went belly up in 1976...but the program continued.

  183. The motivations for crime are complicated. But humans going back to the beginning of civiliazation have treated the response with a 'one size fits all' mentality. Punish 'em. Execute 'em. Lock 'em up. Hope the perp learns his/her lesson.
    And, in America at least, there was no real reason to think anything would change. Being tough on crime is politically popular and superficially satisfying.
    But another basic necessity has gotten in the way. Namely, the cost of incarceration. Communities can not afford to spend $30,000 a year to lock up an inmate in a society that is gung ho about law enforcement. The throng and the expense has become too great.
    So have no doubts, we are at the dawn of a new age of social response to criminal behavior. Not because we have become more enlightened or less vengeful. But because financially we can't afford to just continue locking everyone up. I consider it ironic that only after it has become prohibitively expensive to just lock people up for transgressions, do we actually and sincerely look for alternatives. As with so much else in life, if you want to get people (or society) to change behavior, hit 'em in the wallet.

  184. Let the Good Ones Out

    There is nothing wrong with a fixed sentence for a well defined crime as long as there is flexibility as to how the time is served. Anyone convicted should be able to propose a plan for spending the time outside of prison as long as a few basics are met. This would include cooperation with law enforcement about all crimes, a plan for some restitution, a job, suitable living arrangements, etc. A change of neighborhood could be a plus but the overiding factor would be safety for the community.
    The article mentioned that one program had escalating penalties for infractions. This is good but I would be more concerned about full disclosure regarding the infraction including others that may have been involved.
    Interestingly, an individual might offer to impose restrictions on himself that the state could not require. In addition, non-profit agencies might offer to provide services and support that would make release into the community a much better bet.

  185. As the victim of a violent crime, I do not want my offender to be able to get out of going to prison by proposing an "alternate plan." I want him punished for what he did, and I do not think he is the best judge of how that should be done. I'd feel the same way if I were one of the victims of Madoff or another of the many con men whose thefts were exposed by the recent financial crash. Our criminal justice system should protect victims first, look at other goals a long way second.

  186. Contrast our punitive, bursting-at-the-seams penitentiary system with that of Denmark (typical of Scandinavia). Denmark has very cushy prisons compared to ours, mostly open for those with sentences under 5 years (that is, they can go out and have jobs, etc., and half of all inmates have sentences under 3 months). They incarcerate at one-tenth our rate, and their recidivism rate less than half ours, at 27%.

    It hasn't seemed to have thrown their society into criminal chaos. See for more information.

  187. I do not believe that possession of a drug should be a reason to send one to prison. And I keep hearing horror stories about kid with a joint in jail for years.

    However, I don't know how prevelent that really is. I am guessing it's a convenient mantra - one of those vague statistics quoted in the NYTimes with no real basis in fact. Hope not.

    What I do know is that of the people incarcerated for rape, murder, beatings, gang violence, destruction of private property, break-ins, and burgleries with or without a gun or weapon are let out of jail far too early. 80% of these crimes are committed by repeat offenders.

    Now I know that people here believe that these crimes are committed by people that have had a bad life, lousy childhood, etc. Could be, as most stay away from crimes because of the shame they would feel from their families and neighbors. Not so in areas where criminals (gangs) are 'heros.'

    For all of you that think everyone should just be on probation, get money from the government so that they enjoy a good standard of living, and get to live in a nice neighborhood of their chosing.... Please, move and vote outside the US.