The Law: The Shame of the Prisons

  • Share
  • Read Later

(7 of 10)

never even reported. Since justice is neither swift nor certain, the caught criminal often sees his problem as mere bad luck in a country where "everyone else" gets away with it.

He has a point. Americans widely ignore laws they dislike, whether against gambling or marijuana. The nicest people steal: roughly 75% of insurance claims are partly fraudulent. Uncaught employees pocket $1 billion a year from their employers. To poor offenders who go to jail without bail the system is unfair, and the legal process strengthens that opinion. If a man cannot afford a good lawyer, he is pressured to plead guilty without a trial, as do 90% of all criminal defendants. He then discovers that for the same crime, different judges hand out wildly disparate sentences, from which 31 states and the federal courts allow no appeal.

So the prison gets a man who sees little reason to respect state-upheld values. Even if he actually leaves prison as a reformed character, he faces hazards for which no prison can be blamed. In a Harris poll, 72% of Americans endorsed rehabilitation as the prison goal. But when it came to hiring an ex-armed robber who had shot someone, for example, 43% would hesitate to employ him as janitor, much less as a salesman (54%) or a clerk handling money (71%). This is obviously understandable; it also teaches ex-cons that crime pays because nothing else does.

Even parole supervision is often cursory and capricious. Many parole agents handle more than 100 cases; one 15-minute interview per month per man is typical. The agents can also rule a parolee's entire life, even forbid him to see or marry his girl, all on pain of reimprisonment—a usually unappealable decision made by parole agents, who thus have a rarely examined effect on the repeater rate. To test their judgment, Criminologists James Robison and Paul Takagi once submitted ten hypothetical parole-violator cases to 316 agents in California. Only five voted to reimprison all ten men; half wanted to return some men but disagreed on which ones.

Groping for Change

Can prisons be abolished? Not yet. Perhaps 15% or 20% of inmates are dangerous or unreformable. Still, countless experts agree that at least half of today's inmates would do far better outside prison. President Johnson's crime commission advocated a far greater shift to "community-based corrections" in which prisons would be a last resort, preceded by many interim options designed to keep a man as close as possible to his family, job and normal life—not caged and losing all self-reliance.

Sweden provides a fascinating model. Each year, 80% of its convicted offenders get a suspended sentence or probation, but forfeit one-third of their daily pay for a period determined by the seriousness of their offenses. The fine can be a tidy sum. After Film Maker Ingmar Bergman angrily cuffed a critic two years ago, he was convicted of disturbing the peace and fined for a 20-day period. Total: $1,000.

Swedes who actually enter prison mostly work in attached factories, earning nominal wages to make products for the state. Some promising long-term inmates attend daytime classes at nearby schools and colleges. All live in comfortable private rooms, furnished with desks and curtains, and are eligible for short, regular furloughs to visit their families. For several summers, groups of ten or

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10