I see my light come shining, from the west unto the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released. -Bob Dylan
I hope you appreciate my generosity in giving you this insightful suggestion completely free of charge, knowing that most of the advice you get, whether you take it or not, is costing you, me and every other taxpayer millions of dollars daily. In fact, that’s exactly why it is good advice. It’s going to save the country billions of dollars that are not even being well-spent, and it’s going to put one car of this long fiscal derailment back on the tracks. Allow me to explain.
America has more people behind bars than any other country. This suggests that the people who pull the strings that make the puppits of the incarceration system dance, evidently believe that there are more bad people in America than anywhere else. I have a hunch that, if I should go out into the street and put the question, “Do you think America has more bad people in it than other countries?” to a sample of US citizenry, the answer would resound in the negative. The man in the street could, of course, be wrong about this, but at least we could take from it that the people do not support the project that concludes with more of our citizens locked in iron than, say, North Korea, China or Burma. It seems all wrong.
But the wrongness of it is only part of the reason to simply bring mass incarceration to a close, as a failed experiment of civil society. There is nothing civil about it, and it only worsens an already dismal situation. The extraordinary waste of human and material resources it represents, when fairly calculated and beheld, leads one to conclude that those who support it are weak of intellect and character; those who profit from it are venal in their disregard for justice, good, and right; those who defend it should be kept out of classrooms.
It is not meant to suggest letting everyone out all at once and dismantling the criminal justice system completely. That would be as flakey as the current system of keeping millions of sound citizens behind bars. Habitually violent inmates must be kept close to the stake. Those who habitually prey on children, or those unable to resist depredations against them, belong under tight control, unless and until it is incontrovertibly shown that they no longer represent a threat.
A number of collateral actions must be taken in the form of decriminalization, rescinding laws that create classes of offenders of whom there are no victims save, arguably, themselves. The biggest class of these is dopers, one class of which is the alcoholics, who drink themselves to death without fanfare, and in shocking numbers, daily. The evidence of positive results from the legalization of heroin in countries like Sweden is overwhelming. Why not buy the Afghan opium, process it into heroin and give it to the addicts with clean needles to prevent disease? In the meantime, do everything within the power of educational, medical and social science to cure the addiction and prevent others from blundering into the opiate trap. Spend less, put more people to work, fight organized crime, clean up society and be better people as a result.
Also, stop making hardline distinctions between currently illicit substances and such demonstrably catastrophic drug habits as alcohol and nicotine, which only public demand and the corporate lobby prevent from their outright banning, and which together claim more lives every year than all other drugs of habituation and addiction combined. Instead, decriminalize the use of everything, and make everything available through legitimate, tightly controlled outlets. Among immediate benefits would be the erosion of the stigma attached to use of, marijuana (popular, widely used, minimally dangerous) and amphetamines (popular, widely used, serious health hazard). The removal of production and sale of illegal drugs from the inventory of potential criminal enterprise would be a major victory in the war on drugs. Voila! If its not a crime, there is little profit in it for criminals. Having known a few purveyors of illegal drugs over the years, I can say I never met one who was in favor of decriminalization, and less so legalization, for the simple, obvious reason that they hated the idea of plying their trade from a storefront, and paying taxes on the profits (yet another benefit of decriminalization). “What about the schools?” you say? Every school needs a mascot, and a drug-sniffing dog would make a very nice one.
Take some time and care, but get started releasing our fellow citizens from lockup right away. Seek and get recommendations for early release from parole and probation officers, social workers, medical staff and others in a position to characterize as low, the risk to society from releasing specific individuals. Let them go now. Strap a lie detector on them and if their answers to questions like, “Are you a threat to society?” and “Do you think you will be able to resist the temptation to break the laws of the land if you are released?”, and “Do you understand why you have been imprisoned and on what terms you may obtain immediate provisional release?” are satisfactory and convincing, cut them loose; no wagging fingers, no tsk-tsking, shake their hand and wish them fare-thee-well. Men and women are put on the path to jail on the basis of their answers to a lie detector every day. Is it so far-fetched that the same tools might be useful in choosing those deserving of early release?
And what of the issue of cost? At the end of the day, money is at the root of most of the evil that the penal system represents. Kidnapping, armed robbery, burglary, embezzlement, forgery, grand theft auto, insurance, telecoms, confidence schemes, all have as some part of their underlying rationale the desire to make a living. It is some kind of cruel irony that, in locking a person up and taking over responsibility for their day-to-day physical maintenance, the cost to polite society is far greater per head than is lost through their crimes, OR would be expended by simply paying them a living wage not to commit crimes in the first place. We, as a people, save money by paying people to abjure the behaviors that land them behind bars, where it costs a great deal more to keep them. Just make certain that, as a society, we build the kind of society that doesn’t drive people to commit crimes out of frustration, boredom, resentment, intoxicated delusions, or revenge.
Reckoning the costs of the system, one must take into account everything; the physical premises, the wire, the special transport units, the weaponry, the security, the staff, the uniforms, the courts and their officers, the legislators, the law enforcement details, food, energy, medical care; all these and more, comprise a debit shocking in the extreme. It’s time for our leaders and politicians and greedy prison-building, prison-managing and prison-promoting types, among all the other and sundry supporters to grow a spine and find their conscience. It’s complete nonsense to imagine that crime doesn’t pay. It’s paying very well for those who have promoted the current system to the country as the most rational, best way of tackling the problems of anti-social behavior. Let the miscreants go, apologize to them sincerely, and start over.
I have, Mr. President-elect, enormous respect for your legal mind and social conscience. A community organizer is just the hand the people need on the helm, even those who don’t know why and can’t understand the rationale behind the claim. I started this post with the words of a great poet, so I’ll close it with videos of a couple more. One is an attorney, and the other an activist for protecting the rights of the accused. Sir, I propose to you that our fellow citizens rotting incarcerated have as much right, and deserve the same chance to demonstrate their highest worth, as does a president-elect of the United States. We believe, after all, they are created equal.