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. …