While I was in public life, a judge appeared before me and my fellow commissioners to complain that he’d sentenced a man to 10 consecutive weekends in the county jail but that our facility was so overcrowded, the offender had been turned away each time. The judge glared at the 5 commissioners in outrage. Did we understand the absurdity of the situation? I replied that I did. The judge, knowing the overcrowded conditions, had sentenced someone of reliable character to 10 weekends in the county jail at the tax payer’s expense when community service was a viable alternative. Yes, I nodded, that was absurd.
To be frank, there are few judges who can resist the temptation of an empty cell bed. Generally, their passion is to fill it and never count the cost. No doubt that’s why this nation spends 80 billion dollars a year incarcerating people who pose no physical threat to society and who could serve their sentences in more productive ways. (Why Do We punish?” by Richard A. Posner, The New Republic, June 9, 2014.) Unfortunately, we Americans love to criminalize behavior. Currently there are 4,000 federal crimes on the books and more being written every day, not counting those drafted by state, county and city legislative bodies. It’s a wonder anyone manages to stay out of jail.
Sadly, most people who find themselves behind bars are mentally ill. There’s nowhere else to house them. Building jails is far more popular in the public’s eye than building treatment centers. Oh yes, I know there’s talk of providing more help for the mentally ill each time there’s a mass shooting. Even the NRA gives the notion lips service, largely because it diverts our attention away from gun control. But memory fades and we go on doing what we always have done, warehousing our sick in the criminal justice system.
There are ways to reduce the number of jails needed in our society, if we had the will. We could build those treatment centers we talk about, for a start. We could decriminalize some crimes for another. Possessing marijuana is one example. But I suspect that crime is on its way out, anyway. Once other states see the revenues marijuana brings in for Colorado and Washington, where the drug is legal, the other 48 won’t be far behind.
We could shorten jail sentences, too. Research shows that to prevent recidivism, a shorter sentence is more effective than a longer one. I don’t know why. Maybe it has something to do with keeping a person’s ties with his or her community strong. Unfortunately, the public is convinced longer sentences are better and few politicians who seek reelection dare to contradict. One judge did speak his mind, recently, however:
“…the American hatred of criminals is especially unforgiving, reflecting our ‘sink or swim’ mentality – the belief that America is the land of unlimited opportunity and whoever fails to take the opportunity offered, turning to crime instead, has only himself to blame for his perverse choice and his condign punishment… It is the Calvinist spirit at work. (Ibid, pg. 50)