“Teach them a lesson”: Rethinking Justice in the US

Despite the US being the self-proclaimed land of the free, according to The Sentencing Project, an organization that does research on and advocacy about our criminal justice system, the US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. In 2013, 716 out of every 100,000 individuals were incarcerated, meaning that over 2.2 million people are currently behind bars in our country’s prisons and jails.

The prison population in the US wasn’t always so enormous, but since the 70s, it has increased by 500%. This massive increase is due to policy changes that began in the 1980s including the “War on Drugs” and “tough on crime” policies such as mandatory minimums and three-strikes laws. Unfortunately, many studies show that the War on Drugs is failing, and is doing more harm than good by damaging communities while providing no real resources to help the problem of addiction.

But despite the fact that our “tough on crime” policies are not working, we continue to pour resources into the prison system and  building even more prisons and jailsStudies show that states now spend more on incarceration than on education.

While California spends an average of $50,000 per prisoner every year, we spend less than $10,000 per student, meaning that we invest more in punishment than we do in education.

Did you know that it costs the same amount to keep someone in prison for a year than it does to send them to Yale? For the same amount that it costs to send someone to prison for 2 years, you could pay for all four years of their college education at a highly regarded school such as UCLA or UC Berkeley.

This is especially discouraging because education is one of the best ways to keep people out of prison, and offering educational opportunities and vocational training to incarcerated people, giving them the knowledge and skills that they need to support themselves and their families, is known to reduce recidivism rates. That means that education in prisons reduces costs overall while increasing public safety.

In light of this, as well as the success of projects such as the Bard Prison Initiative, Governor Cuomo of New York recently proposed a program to offer college courses in prisons to end the cycle of incarceration.  While the cost of incarceration in New York is a whopping $60,000 per prisoner per year, this project would cost only $5,000 per year, which is relatively inexpensive. This initiative would make it easier for prisoners to find jobs once released from prison, meaning that they would be less likely to re-offend and end up back in the system, so in the long run, it would actually end up decrease costs.

Unfortunately, the money for this program never made it into the budget due to opposition from lawmakers. Despite evidence that educating inmates benefits society on multiple levels, some politicians fear the program would backfire, such as assemblyman James N. Tedisco, who claimed that far from rehabilitating criminals, that education could only ever make them worse as it “makes them smarter criminals.”

Others however, objected not on the grounds that it wouldn’t be successful, but on the grounds that prisoners deserve harsh punishment, not second chances. Senator George D. Maziarz complained, “It should be ‘do the crime, do the time,’ not ‘do the crime, earn a degree.’”

Is Senator Maziarz right, and does offering prisoners educational opportunities go against justice? How we answer that question depends on the philosophy behind why we punish.

Two philosophies of punishment are retributivism and utilitarianism.

As discussed in the article “Two Concepts of Rules” by John Rawls, the retributive view of punishment is that we punish because wrongdoers deserve it, that punishment and suffering in proportion to the damage done by the wrongdoer is morally fitting.

On the other hand, according to the utilitarian view, punishment is only justified if it produces socially desirable outcomes. In other words, according to utilitarianism, we don’t punish because lawbreakers deserve to suffer, but because we want to prevent them from breaking laws again in the future or causing any further damage to society.

Politicians who oppose education in prisons seem to use the retributive philosophy of punishment to support their views. They believe that prison should not be a pleasant experience because criminals deserve to suffer. Their view focuses on the idea that prisoners are bad people, who are either un-redeemable, or do not deserve a chance at redemption. According to retributivism, if you have broken a law, it is morally fitting that you suffer; prisoners don’t deserve any benefits or support.

Politicians who support education in prisons use the utilitarian point of view. This more hopeful view the criminal justice system acknowledges that while we cannot undo past crimes, we can enact policies that create a better future outcome. Utilitarianism demands that a primary goal of our justice system should be to reduce rates of crime, and to reduce the likelihood of people re-offending. By this philosophy, education is a worthwhile investment  because it lowers recidivism rates, thus producing a socially desirable outcome.

Whether or not we should fund programs that make education and vocational training more widely available in prisons depends on whether you have a retributivist or a utilitarian view of punishment. So which side do we take?

It seems to me that we call it the “department of corrections” for a reason: our prison system is supposed to rehabilitate prisoners. The utilitarian philosophy of punishment fits into the idea of rehabilitation and is more optimistic than retributivism. It acknowledges that prisoners can become productive, law abiding citizens again given the proper guidance and resources.

But I would argue that education can fit in to a retributivist point of view as well.

The politicians that oppose educational programs do so under the justification that prison needs to be a bad experience, and that education would make it too cushy and easy, but this is an unreasonable claim.

Incarcerated people face many challenges and violations of their rights, and this punishment extends much farther than a deprivation of liberty while they are incarcerated. The US has unreasonably long prison sentences. Prisoners suffer separation from their families, and may permanently lose custody of their children. They suffer from overcrowding and healthcare so inadequate that it has been deemed a violation of their constitutional rights. Incarcerated men and women face prison rape and sexual harassment by other prisoners and by guards. Formerly incarcerated people face stigma and many disadvantages for the rest of their lives. For the most minor of infractions, guards can decide to put a prisoner in solitary confinement, where they are kept in a tiny room for up to 23 hours a day, with no human contact: this practice is incredibly damaging to the mental health of prisoners and has been classified as torture by human rights groups. Even after they are released, prisoners will face legal discrimination in housing and employment, and lose the right to vote. If convicted of a drug related crime, they may be ineligible for food stamps for the rest of their lives, even if they successfully complete a rehabilitation program.

Retributivism claims that people should be punished with suffering in proportion to the damage they caused to society. When almost half of prisoners have been convicted of non-violent crimes, can we really say that prisoners “get what they deserve” in our current system? When is enough enough? And should deprivation of education also be part of an inmate’s sentence?

Any politician that is claiming that prison isn’t already bad enough is clearly out of touch with the reality of incarceration in America.

As prison populations skyrocket in the US to levels never seen in any region of the world at any point in human history, we need to take this moment to re-evaluate our prison system. We shouldn’t just give up on the millions of people who are incarcerated. If we truly want to address the problem of crime in our society, we need to shift towards a more utilitarian view of punishment, focusing on solutions that create a better future. Even if we maintain a retributive philosophy, it’s time to ask ourselves if the ways we are punishing individuals is truly just.

Of course, education is just one small part of a bigger picture, but it is also a good first step. Implementing educational programs in prison, and focusing on policies that help inmates rehabilitate and support themselves will help heal our communities.

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