Saturday, January 28, 2012

Needed: Jail, revised edition.

In an earlier post, I had linked to some articles which went into the question of why we imprison people.

I had quoted Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, as saying that our practice of imprisoning people is certainly destined for future condemnation.

Adam Gopnik, in a piece in the New Yorker, reflects on the increase in the number of people imprisoned in the USA and wonders why so many are caged. “How did we get here?” he asks. “ How is it that our civilization, which rejects hanging and flogging and disembowelling, came to believe that caging vast numbers of people for decades is an acceptably humane sanction?”

True, with increase in incarceration, there has been a sharp decrease in crime rate in the US, and the unquestioned assumption was that there was a direct correlation. This has been turned on its head in Franklin E. Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe,” that Gopnik refers to. Zimring explains that the reduction in crime rate in New York did not come about from jailing superpredators and other such steps. Instead,” small acts of social engineering, designed simply to stop crimes from happening, helped stop crime. In the nineties, the N.Y.P.D. began to control crime not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened—“hot-spot policing.” The cops also began an aggressive, controversial program of “stop and frisk”—“designed to catch the sharks, not the dolphins,” as Jack Maple, one of its originators, described it—that involved what’s called pejoratively “profiling.

On the contrary, while more people were getting imprisoned in the rest of USA, the number of inmates was actually reducing in New York during the period when crime rate was coming down.

So, Gopnik asks, should we think differently about imprisonment?

Since prison plays at best a small role in stopping even violent crime, very few people, rich or poor, should be in prison for a nonviolent crime. Neither the streets nor the society is made safer by having marijuana users or peddlers locked up, let alone with the horrific sentences now dispensed so easily. For that matter, no social good is served by having the embezzler or the Ponzi schemer locked in a cage for the rest of his life, rather than having him bankrupt and doing community service in the South Bronx for the next decade or two. Would we actually have more fraud and looting of shareholder value if the perpetrators knew that they would lose their bank accounts and their reputation, and have to do community service seven days a week for five years? It seems likely that anyone for whom those sanctions aren’t sufficient is someone for whom no sanctions are ever going to be sufficient. Zimring’s research shows clearly that, if crime drops on the street, criminals coming out of prison stop committing crimes. What matters is the incidence of crime in the world, and the continuity of a culture of crime, not some “lesson learned” in prison.
It will be interesting to look at statistics in India on incidences of crime in each state and number of people in jail. Does imprisonment have an impact at all on the future crime rate?

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