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Sunday, July 28, 2013

Exploding U.S. Prison Population - Who is to blame?

I frequently read statistics that report the number of people in U.S. prisons.  Recent Department of Justice statistics report that the population of prisoners in federal and state prisons and local jails is a little over 2.3 million.  Even more frequently, I read how the United States has the largest prison population, and the greatest number of persons incarcerated per capita than any other civilized nation.  In-fact, the U.S. prison population exceeds the combined prison populations of several other nations.

Blame for the U.S. prison population seems to include the failed war on drugs, elected judges running on a “tough on crime” platform that forces them to give out harsher sentences, mandatory sentencing guidelines, recidivism resulting from the corrections systems’ failure to prepare people for release, the prison industrial complex, allegations of racism because of the disproportionate racial composition of incarcerated persons, and other similar influences.  No one discounts these as contributing factors to our expanding prison population.

The statistics are probably fairly accurate.  Compiling statistics is valuable for determining trends and whether the solutions implemented to resolve a problem are achieving their desired objectives. However, recording or citing statistics does nothing to identify the core cause of the problem, or for discovering solutions that directly resolve the problem.  

Given the fact that the prison population continues to increase disproportionately in relation to the population of the nation, we might conclude that the core problem is still elusive, and despite the efforts and capital being spent on our corrections system, the numbers suggest that we are funding symptoms as opposed to resolving core problems.

Many people might conclude that the corrections system is to blame, particularly for the high rate of recidivism.  I might argue that we are blaming the messenger, since it is the Justice Department and the corrections system that are reporting the statistics. Perhaps more importantly, we tend to place blame on whoever had last possession in the chain of custody.

Some career professionals working within the DOJ and corrections system suggest that the blame lies with our failed education system.  

If our education system is such a failure, how do we explain the tens-of-thousands of kids each year who graduate from public schools and are accepted into colleges and universities that have substantially high entrance standards?  Albeit there is always room for improvement, calling our public education system a failure is a red hearing with regard to this discussion.

It is impossible to solve a problem by treating symptoms.  Yet, when a problem arises, it is the symptoms, not the problem, that jumps out and slaps us in the face.

I would propose that the core problem that continues to exacerbate our expanding prison population is not a failed corrections or education system, or mandatory sentencing guidelines, the war on drugs, or racism.

The core problem is constitutional and the misinterpretation or adjudication of the Constitution and Bill of Rights by our legislature and judiciary, in many respects yielding to the pressure of the liberal left.

As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I subscribe to many of the fundamentals of the liberal left. However, I have also concluded that the very people who shout the loudest about our expanding prison population may have contributed to its cause.

During a trip a several years ago to New York City, I visited the observation deck of the Empire State Building.  I found it interesting that there are fences surrounding the observation area with the top two feet of the fence leaning inward.  My suspicions were confirmed by the individual working at the facility- the barrier is to prevent people from jumping off of the building - anti-suicide fencing.  I had noticed similar fencing at observation areas in the Grand Canyon and various other scenic areas around the county.  Evidently, our government has determined that making suicide unlawful is not enough - it has erected mechanisms to help prevent violations of that law.

Over the past several of decades, there has been public debate regarding a person’s right to end their life, most notably with regard to doctor-assisted suicide for which Dr. Jack Kevorkian had sacrificed himself as the ambassador for the crusade.

Do you have the constitutional right to jump off a cliff and end your life?  Again, the question is clearly a debate that continues - with both sides providing zealous and coherent arguments.  What is clear, and there is likely consensus, is that you do not have the constitutional right to jump off the Empire State Building into a crowded street below.  Irrespective of your arguable right to end your life, you clearly do not have the right to endanger other people in the exercise of your rights - hence the reason for the laws banning suicide, and the fences.

Our laws and regulations, and the mechanisms invoked or erected to enforce various laws theoretically may infringe upon an individual’s rights, but are weighed against the potential violation of the rights of others.

There is one more component to briefly discuss before summarizing my conclusions from this brief discussion.

All mammals share the reptilian-level instincts to acquire the fundamental things they need for survival, which include food, shelter, and security, and reproduction of the species.  

Most mammals are born with the tools they require to hunt for food, build their shelters, and provide for their security.  They practice using their tools and instincts during adolescence while still under the umbrella of a teaching parent.  For example, if we look at lions, tigers and bears, their fundamental tools are claws and teeth, along with a certain level of intellect.

If we examine the human mammal, we are also endowed with instincts that are similar to our mammal cousins, and the same fundamental needs for food, shelter, security and reproduction.

Many mammals, including humans, are instinctively social, and form communities and societal structures within which there are rules and hierarchies.  We humans have evolved a societal structure that we commonly refer to as civilized society.  All societal groups work to serve their respective needs, utilizing the tools that they have available.

The needs and desires of lions, tigers and bears are satisfied with the tools they have - teeth and claws.  It would be an aberration for any of them to develop extraordinary needs or desires that would require tools beyond that which they have, or the skills that they acquire with experience.

However, we humans seem to develop additional needs and desires that extend far beyond our fundamental survival requirements.  We live in a society that promotes instant gratification, and in a capitalistic culture that survives and expands by creating a need that previously did not exist.  Our needs have evolved to include the need for a new iPhone, expensive clothing and accessories, or a new Cadillac Escalade.

Corresponding to the teeth and claws that are the primitive tools of our mammal cousins are guns and knives, which by analogy are equally primitive when compared to other tools available to achieve substantially the same objectives.

Among our many gifts as humans is our almost limitless ability to learn.  We have the unique ability to add tools to our tool chest through the process of education and experience.  Education is what separates us from our Neanderthal ancestors and from all of our mammal cousins.

Education provides us with the many tools necessary to navigate our societal structure and achieve the fulfillment of the innumerous extraordinary needs and desires we have developed as a species and as a culture.

Without the additional tools that are the by-product of education, we still have the desires for the iPhone, the Cadillac and a plethora of other products.  However, without the tools that we acquire through education, we are left with a struggle to fulfill these needs and desires by utilizing the only tools we have - teeth and claws - guns and knives, or other primitive or nefarious mechanisms.

Education is available from a variety of sources.  We can refer to the public and private education system in the United States as a formal education.  However, an individual can also acquire an education on the streets and in prison.  In either scenario, the fundamental purpose of education is to increase an individual’s collection of tools - the tools that they utilize for acquiring their needs and fulfilling their desires.

I believe that it is reasonable to conclude that a formal education is more beneficial to the welfare of the individual and to society as a whole.  Our society and world economy have become extraordinarily competitive environments.  Navigating our civilized society using socially acceptable methods requires a bare minimum of a high school education.  Further, some people argue that because our culture has become so technically advanced, it might be time to consider increasing a minimum high school education from 12 to 14 years.

All states have compulsory-attendance laws. However, the truancy departments charged with enforcement of these laws are frequently under-staffed and over-worked.  

Students cannot drop out of school until they turn 16 in most states and 18 in a few.  A few states have imposed penalties that include driver’s license revocation for minors who drop out, and they can also impose sanctions on the families of those students such as reduced welfare benefits.  Despite these penalties, these consequences have had a negligible effect on dropout rates.  The laws have been ineffective, and some civil liberty advocates suggest that forcing an individual to complete high school is an infringement on their civil rights.

Where individuals do not have the mental capacity to make informed decisions and sound judgments for themselves, a guardian must make these decisions for them.  Persons incapable of exercising sound judgment would obviously include individuals who suffer a mental handicap.  Where a guardian is unavailable or is incapable of rendering assistance, the government steps in.  As a society, we do not allow people to jump off a cliff, and the very desire to do so suggests a mental impairment.

The axiom, “if I only knew then what I know now,” clarifies why our culture should not allow anyone the option of dropping out of high school.  From the standpoint of survival within our societal structure, allowing an individual to drop out of high school is not much different than allowing them to jump off a cliff.  Giving an individual the option to simply decline a basic education functionally deprives them of the tools that are essential and prerequisite to navigating our expanding and complex economy as necessary to satisfy their basic needs, or to provide any of the other comforts available within or culture.

An individual of sixteen years does not have the capacity or judgment to make a decision that, if made incorrectly, will have catastrophic consequences.  At that age, a person simply does not know what he or she does not know.  The civil liberties of these young and impressionable people are not being infringed because civilized society decides that people will not be permitted the option of wallowing through life suffering the consequences of illiteracy.

For the sake of debate, I will stipulate that perhaps it is a violation of an individual’s rights to force him or her to complete a high school education.  Such individuals will still have the basic needs for survival, and they will still develop the extraordinary desires for many of the comforts available within our culture. These under educated individuals will still want the iPhone and Cadillac Escalade, and they will utilize the only tools they have to acquire it - teeth & claws / guns & knives.  Under this scenario, the individual is not jumping off of the cliff at the Grand Canyon to an empty gorge, but rather they are jumping off of the Empire State Building into a rush-hour crowd of people.  Many of the people below are going to suffer the consequences of an individual’s poor judgment, by a person whom those innocent and injured people had never even met.

The plethora of individuals whose rights are infringed because a person elects to drop out of high school is substantial.  Everyone else pays for the social programs to support these individuals.  In an increasing number of instances, we all pay for their incarceration in a prison system that places severe economic strains on many state budgets, not to mention the incalculable cost to victims.

Depending upon where an individual attends high school, the dropout rate ranges from 21% - 50% according to statistics released by the state departments of education.

Sentencing laws, record numbers of drug offenders and high crime rates have been contributing factors to the expanding prison population in the United States. These are some factors that play a role regarding the United States having the largest prison population in the World.  These factors are only symptoms of an underlying systemic problem that, if it continues unresolved, will eventually cause a pivotal shift in our entire culture.

Drugs are sold and consumed predominantly by individuals who have no other tools to exploit to acquire their needs and fulfill their desires. Consumers of drugs frequently lack the tools to acquire the money necessary to maintain their habit, which accounts for a great deal of our nation’s increasing crime rates.

Irrespective of drug-related crimes, with dropout rates hitting 50% in some areas, simple arithmetic projects that within a generation or two, our nation will have jumped off of a cliff.

Neither our corrections nor our education systems are to blame for our nation’s robust prison population. The corrections system is doing the best it can with what it has to work with - 2.3 million people, of whom a substantial majority are functionally illiterate when measured against the literacy standards necessary to operate within the guidelines of our civilized society.

A high school education must be as mandatory as any of our most important and enforced public policies and laws.  Completion of a high school education must be demonstrated through a series of tests, not just because an individual has demonstrated the endurance to make it to the 12th grade.

The United States is becoming an increasingly illiterate culture when compared to just a couple of generations ago.  And, with high school dropout rates hitting 50%, it is only going to get worse.

Arguably, responsibility lies with parents.  However, when illiteracy is second, third and fourth generation, it is unreasonable to entrust the parents with the responsibility of ensuring their child’s education.

If not the parents, then who is going to accept responsibility to ensure that the current and subsequent generations of the nation’s children receive adequate education and tools to navigate a lifestyle in civilized society - orphanages or more social services?  

The cost to society to support an uneducated individual is far greater than any of the alternative options to ensure that all children become educated.

The solutions to the prison population, which will only continue to grow, can only come to fruition through public debate, followed by conclusions and difficult decisions in our legislature and judiciary.

Recidivism is not the problem.  Recidivism is a symptom.  The problems that contribute to crime and recidivism are much deeper.  Education and family structure have deteriorated substantially during my generation, and I would argue that these issues are at the very core.

The prison and correction systems need to stop tripping over themselves to buy the latest and greatest repackaged dysfunctional symptom-treating programs that contributed to the seventy percent recidivism rate, and start having a conversation that clearly identifies the underlying problems.

Our nation desperately needs to get back to basics and unconditionally require that every person achieve the minimum level of education necessary to navigate a dynamic civilized society.

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