For children, for justice, for freedom

Popular culture portrays prisons as bastions of brutality that only harden offenders. Many prisons offer schooling, treatment for addiction, and other rehabilitative services, but the existence and effectiveness of such services is often questionable, if recidivism rates are any measure. By one estimate, half of those released from prison return within three years. One reason for high recidivism is the array of barriers to re-entry in the community. Ex-offenders are barred from getting public housing, occupational licenses, and educational loans. Their criminal records make it almost impossible for them to get jobs. In some communities, especially rural areas and urban ghettos, they cannot find social services.

High Cost of Punishment Approach

In recent years, the impulse has been to punish rather than to rehabilitate - and to punish harshly, even for low-level property and drug-related crimes. Consequently, incarceration has grown by leaps and bounds and, by some accounts, far in excess of population growth and the actual crime rate. The monies that go into building and operating prisons have robbed resources from education, health care, public infrastructure, transportation, employment training, environmental protection, parks and other treasured areas of American life. The current system punishes lawbreakers, but it also punishes taxpayers. Estimates indicate that we are paying more than twice as much per year to house an inmate as to educate a child.

Moving Toward Reform

A move is underway to revamp current laws, enforcement, sentencing, confinement, and parole. Some have proposed alternative consequences, such as fines, restitution, electronic monitoring, and community-based programs. Others have raised questions at a more basic level. For example, does the threat of prison really deter a person from committing a crime? Do all offenders have access to adequate legal counsel and mental health services? Do sentences logically fit the crimes, or do they unfairly target minorities? Certainly we need to confine the most violent offenders, but under what conditions and for how long? Given the recent episodes of executing the innocent, is capital punishment a just and humane option?