Are drill sergeants an improvement on prisons?

By Alan Bean

As a group, criminals are deeply alienated from mainstream society.  They are more likely to have mental health issues, to be drug addicted, to be high school dropouts and to have severe learning disabilities than the average person.  Moreover, as David Kennedy argues in Don’t Shooteven when jobs programs are available “not many street guys come forward, not that many can stick with the social-service programs designed to help them, not many can make it even when they really try.  They’re heavily compromised in awful ways: They have appalling criminal records, street attitudes that are hard to shake, they’re shocky, they have terrible work habits.”

Are there exceptions?  Certainly.  Thousands of them.  But public policy is driven by the normal case, and that isn’t very encouraging.  On the other hand, prison normally makes things worse.  Prisons didn’t work as reformatories back in the day when reformation was a serious concern, and they are much worse now that we have decided to warehouse inmates.  When ex-offenders return to the free world, they are walled in by restrictions that would force the most capable and motivated person to throw in the towel.

What are the alternatives?  Some people need to be in prison.  They’re dangerous.  But what about the majority of inmates who aren’t violent?  Can’t we find a more creative response to street crime than prison and felon disenfranchisement?

Stephanos Bibas thinks non-violent offenders should be drafted into the military.  He realizes that both conservatives and liberals will think of all sorts of reasons to oppose his suggestion, but he thinks the advantages outweigh the obvious objections.

I am more drawn to the alternative he cites (without elaboration) in his final sentence: “a civilian analogue to the military, something like the Civilian Conservation Corps, with uniforms, ranks, strict discipline, and a mission, to build character and skills.”

I am too influenced by Christian non-violence to be excited about the restorative potential of the military, but, as Bibas points out, the armed forces have allowed thousands of troubled young men and women to find themselves.  If you want some discipline in your life, there’s nothing like a drill sergeant getting up in your face.

Frequent readers of this blog may find this surprising, but I am pretty conservative on this issue.  I have heard too many residents of poor urban and small town neighborhoods complain that “the kids on my block just don’t want to work, period!”  Moreover, I know too many teachers who are traumatized by kids with what is currently called ODD, Oppositional-Defiant Disorder.  These are kids who will look you in the eye, unleash a stream of the most vile and insulting profanity imaginable, and dare you to do anything about it.

In many cases, there isn’t much a teacher can do about it.

Passing the blame to the parents is no solution.  These kids did not choose their parents wisely, but that ship has sailed.  And sure, kids with ODD have good reasons for being mad at the world (starting with their dysfunctional parents).  But this isn’t about blaming the kids and giving society a pass; it’s about responding to a chaotic social crisis too perilous to be overlooked.  In times like these, sentimentality is worse than useless.

I don’t think military service should be mandatory, but for a lot of troubled kids, a stint in the armed forces might present a viable option.  Drill sergeants are tasked with undoing the consequences of bad parenting and social formation.  The man in your face wants to break you down so he can put you back together with some steel in your spine, some self-respect in your heart and some discipline in your life.  So long as you don’t get shipped off to Iraq or Afghanistan, there’s nothing wrong with that.

There are no easy answers here. Nothing we have tried is working; in fact, it’s making things worse.  So give professor Bibas a fair hearing and tell us what you think.

Military Service, Education, Treatment

Stephanos Bibas

In my last guest-blog post about my new book, I suggested making prison more pro-social by requiring able-bodied convicts to work. In today’s post, I’ll extend the idea, first by suggesting military service for convicts without serious violent tendencies or major disabilities.

Throughout history, many societies have sentenced convicts to military service, offering them a concrete way to work off their debts and earn freedom. Currently, however, most of the American military services forbid enlistment as an alternative to criminal prosecution or as a form of punishment. The rigors of military service are vivid and easy to visualize: think of boot camps, with bugles at dawn, shouting drill sergeants, and strenuous calisthenics. The public sees military service as rigorous, demanding labor. Yet these rigors would be productive and prosocial, inculcating work habits and discipline that wrongdoers often lack.

Now, readers from both sides of the political spectrum will doubtless object. Those on the left may complain that military service would put defendants in harm’s way and degrade them. Those on the right may fear that using military service would demean the honorable service of law-abiding men and women who choose to serve their country. And military leaders might well resist the change, both for reasons of honor and for concerns about administering unruly convicts.

But a properly crafted program could allay all three sets of concerns. To satisfy those on the right, prisoners would be compelled to join, not free to choose. They would come in at lower ranks and lower wages than ordinary enlistees. Garnishment and restitution would further reduce their take-home pay, and GI Bill benefits would not vest for some time. They could wear different uniforms and enjoy fewer privileges, by for example being confined to base. They would have to endure the lowliest of jobs, even cleaning latrines, and suffer push-ups and other punishments for the smallest infractions. In other words, prisoners would not start out equal.

On the other hand, those on the left might note that the military has one of the best records of racial equality and meritocratic advancement in America. Integrating minority prisoners into the military, full of minority officers, would be far less vulnerable to charges of racism than exiling them to prisons. Integrating prisoners into barracks would also reduce the crmiminogenic clumping and self-segregation that prisons breed. Any harms faced would be prosocial, in the service of their country and as payment of their debts to society, offsetting the harms they threatened or caused to others.

Any humbling would be productive and temporary. Inmates could prove themselves and in time earn promotions and restoration to full equality, including equal rank, pay, and benefits. After a time, their families could come to live with them on military bases, helping to reintegrate them. Convicts would learn productive, marketable skills, and employers view military service as a valuable credential, paving the way for reentry and future employment.

Military leaders might note that military service in lieu of criminal punishment has a long history and has hardly dishonored the law-abiding soldiers who served alongside wrongdoers. At least if one screens out problem candidates, the disciplinary problems have historically been manageable and may have been improved by the structure, rigor, and sense of purpose in military life.

Nevertheless, the military almost certainly will resist being asked to take on a social purpose in addition to fighting wars and defending against attacks. Moreover, the current all-volunteer ethos of the American military may conflict with effectively drafting convicts. If military opposition proves insurmountable, the military could at least repeal its bans and selectively admit convicts who are most compatible with military life. Or one could experiment with creating a civilian analogue to the military, something like the Civilian Conservation Corps, with uniforms, ranks, strict discipline, and a mission, to build character and skills.