Monday, October 5, 2009

Bankrupting ourselves . . . for "safety!"

Oregon State PenitentiarySalem's biggest boom industry. Image by Katherine H via Flickr

Sad evidence that Oregon hasn't managed to quite recognize that no state or nation has ever imprisoned its way to prosperity. The really insidious thing about our incarceration binge -- we're still the world leader in something! -- is that it's such an effective positive feedback system: the more people we send to prison for long sentences, the more people in the next generation we'll be dealing with through the criminal justice system.

We're unique among nations in having a trifecta of penal senselessness: We have not only extraordinarily long sentences for an extraordinary wide range of crimes (sentences that typically obliterate family ties and destroy childrens' prospects), we have a huge political class of hypocrites who have an extraordinary level of commitment to a senseless and futile drug war (treating addictions through prisons rather than through the medical model); lastly, we've also got a criminal justice system built on a vengeance/retribution model that ensures that, with almost 100% success, the people ground through the system are eventually returned to society with no skills, no hope, no supports, and no prospects for making a living through anything but crime.

It's really a perfect storm of counterproductive policies because, when you look at the incentives available for the various players (cops, prosecutors, legislators, prison staffers, voters), they all tend to perpetuate the status quo, even though the end result is to move us further and further into bankruptcy while we build and fill prisons, the only really vibrant industrial sector we have right now. Prisons are "anti-factories," giant facilities engaged in the round-the-clock task of destroying human potential and ensuring a steady customer base for themselves for decades to come.

The prison mania is one of the dead weights that's causing our economy to fail; even the richest countries eventually find that there's a limit to how much wealth you can sink into anti-factories before the wealth runs out.
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