Cruel & Unusual: The True Costs of Our Prison System

By DeFina, Robert; Hannon, Lance | Commonweal, January 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Cruel & Unusual: The True Costs of Our Prison System


DeFina, Robert, Hannon, Lance, Commonweal


A decade ago, in November 2000, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral statement titled Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal justice. Unapologetically critiquing a criminal-justice system focused primarily on punishment, the bishops called the American response to crime "a moral test for our nation and a challenge for our church."

Their statement chastised the United States for its "astounding" rate of incarceration, "six to twelve times higher than the rate of other Western countries," and went on to suggest changes that would make the system more humane and socially beneficial. "Putting more people in prison and, sadly, more people to death has not given Americans the security we seek," the bishops declared- "It is time for a new national dialogue on crime and corrections, justice and mercy, responsibility and treatment."

The backdrop to the bishops' pastoral was a dramatic rise in the incarceration rate. In the twenty years preceding their report, that rate rose steeply and steadily, more than tripling to 683 prisoners per 100,000 of the population--which meant 2 million people behind bars and a total bill to federal, state, and local governments of about $64 billion. Closer inspection of the ranks of the imprisoned raised even more concerns. Prisons were increasingly admitting nonviolent criminals, especially those guilty of drug-related infractions. The prison population was increasingly made up of minorities: by 2000 about 60 percent of those imprisoned were either black or Hispanic. And Harvard sociologist Bruce Western noted that more than half of all African-American men who lack high-school diplomas were imprisoned by age thirty-four.

Scholars who studied the issue concluded that the prison buildup was not simply a response to rising crime: violent-crime rates in 2000, in fact, roughly equaled those of 1980, while property-crime rates were actually lower. The trend toward mass incarceration was rooted rather in a series of policy changes aimed at winning political favor by "getting tough on crime." These included mandatory sentencing, "three strikes and you're out" laws, and harsher rules for probation and parole. And so the same amount of crime yielded substantially more incarceration. Nor did the strategy of mass imprisonment contribute much toward keeping crime down. Even the most generous estimates suggested a relatively minor role in crime prevention; many studies showed that rates of violent crime were unaffected. Indeed, as we shall see, some evidence suggests that certain crimes might actually have increased as a result.

For the bishops a decade ago, the existing approaches to criminal justice were severely at odds with the church's scriptural, theological, and sacramental heritage. "A Catholic approach begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender," they wrote. "As bishops, we believe that the current trend of more prisons and more executions, with too little education and drug treatment, does not truly reflect Christian values and will not really leave our communities safer." The overriding emphasis on punishment, the harsh and dehumanizing conditions of prisons, the lack of help to prisoners attempting reentry into society: these and other failures of the system led the bishops to call for a new direction, one that emphasized restorative justice and reintegration while insisting on the well-being and fair treatment of both prisoners and their victims.

The system envisioned by the bishops offered prisoners reintegration into the community, including the opportunity for reconciliation with those harmed, even as it supported victim restitution. It rejected crudely punitive strategies, such as mandatory sentencing, that neglect the complex sources of crime and the particularities of an individual criminal's makeup. The bishops also called for better treatment within the prison walls, including expanded counseling, health care, education, and training to help emerging prisoners integrate successfully into society. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Cruel & Unusual: The True Costs of Our Prison System
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.