Magazine article Tikkun

Fear, Crime, and Punishment in the United States

Magazine article Tikkun

Fear, Crime, and Punishment in the United States

Article excerpt


Steven R. Donziger, a former public defender in Washington, D.C., edited The Real War on Crime (HarperPerennial: 1996). He practices law in New York City.

In 1961, at the end of his term in office, President Eisenhower warned of an ominous development: defense policy was falling under the influence of a new "military-industrial complex" that was composed of private defense contractors, Pentagon officials, and elected leaders. It was said that the rise of the military-industrial complex represented a convergence of political forces so powerful and far-reaching that it outstripped the capacity of any institution or individual to control them. Those involved were financially and politically invested in the rapid growth of the defense sector of the economy, regardless of whether that growth was the most effective way to combat the Soviet threat and defend America from foreign enemies. The creation of a balanced defense policy, one that actually might have cost less and been more effective, was at best a concern secondary to the need to keep funneling tax dollars into defense spending.

Today, commentators have begun to speak of the rise of a new "prison-industrial complex" and its hold over crime policy. There appear to be many similarities between the "prison-industrial complex" and the "military-industrial complex" as they have exercised influence in their respective areas. The most striking is the need to create a policy that firstly addresses the economic imperatives of the industry rather than the social needs of the public it purportedly serves. A second similarity is that the resulting policy creates significant employment opportunities in communities where prisons (or military bases) locate--a process that today ties the economic well-being of millions of people to the growth of the crime industry and the existence of crime itself. A third similarity is that elected leaders adore crime in much the same way they loved Communism; both symbolize an evil without impurities that can be easily bashed for electoral advantage. Yet another similarity is that both the military and prison industries have an implacable internal logic that allows them to benefit regardless of whether their stated policies succeed or fail. If we lose a war, we need more weapons to win the next one; if we win a war, we need more weapons so we can keep winning. If crime is up, we need more prisons to lower crime; if crime is down, we need more prisons so it stays down.

While the military-industrial complex helped to create the most powerful military machine ever, the prison-industrial complex has produced the largest and most expensive prison system in the world (with the possible exception of China, which does not publish statistics on its prison system). While the military has been enormously extravagant, spending hundreds of dollars for a toilet seat and more than a billion dollars each for the Stealth bomber, the prison system is rife with irrationalities that waste huge sums of tax dollars by confining petty offenders to some of the harshest sentences in the world for nonviolent crimes. To take just one recent example, about 100 persons have been sentenced to prison for life for possession of marijuana under California's "three strikes" law. The projected cost to taxpayers is $1.5 million per head. This is an example of why prisons are the largest public works program in America, providing housing, food, (and only sometimes) education, mental health services, and drug treatment. Not coincidentally, public spending on the institutions that used to provide these services to those in need has been slashed dramatically to pay for prison construction.

Rates of serious crime in the United States remained remarkable stable from the mid-1970s through the early 1990s. While the last five years have seen a sustained decrease in reported crime, due to variables that include the aging of the population and the stabilization of the drug trade, an average of three 500-bed facilities still open each week. …

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