Another conservative decries mass incarceration

By Alan Bean

When I first became aware of the horrors of mass incarceration fifteen years ago, hardly anyone in Middle America was discussing the problem.  Things have changed.

Just last week, Michelle Alexander addressed the Biennial Convention of the American Baptist Churches in Kansas City.  American Baptists are far more progressive than Southern Baptists, to be sure, but it took some guts for denominational leaders to invite an outspoken advocate of radical reform to address a predominantly white audience.  I congratulate them.  Part of me hopes Michelle didn’t ruffle too many feathers; the other part hopes she did.

Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post, begins his column with a salute to Dr. Alexander, acknowledging that she has done more than any other single person to dissect and draw attention to the mass incarceration crisis.  But he also gives a shout out to the late Charles Colson and his Prison Fellowship, an organization that has recently dedicated itself to transposing Michelle’s music into a key that registers with white evangelicals.

I am not convinced by Gerson’s argument that mass incarceration is largely responsible for lowering the crime rate.  But the point isn’t worth debating if it is agreed that the costs of locking up entire neighborhoods far exceed any gains that might have accrued.

Gerson also understands that making prison life mindlessly miserable doesn’t make sense if we are trying to lower rates of recidivism–the vast majority of inmates eventually return to the free world.

Mass incarceration’s tragic success

By , Published: June 27

At a time of earnest debate on the size and role of government, relatively little attention has been paid to the Hoover Dam of American social engineering: mass incarceration.

As crime rates increased in the 1960s and ’70s, the prototypical liberal response — the amelioration of the social conditions thought to generate crime — seemed ineffective and woolly headed. “Law and order” campaigns became the norm in both parties, accompanied by policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, aimed at incapacitating the criminal class. The number of people behind bars in America rose from 314,000 in 1979 to about 2 million in mid-2013.

Few objected because this approach was accompanied by a dramatic decline in crime rates, which fell by half in some categories. Not all this was because of increased incarceration — better policing techniques played a significant role — but public safety was clearly improved by separating convicted criminals from prospective victims for longer periods. As the crime problem became less urgent, the issue largely faded. In polls, few Americans rank crime as a top concern.

But the social side effects of get-tough policies are coming under increasing scrutiny. On the left, Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander presses the case against a criminal justice system that sweeps up large numbers of young African Americans, sometimes for relatively minor drug offenses, places them in dangerous and dysfunctional institutions and then, upon release, denies them basic democratic rights. “Today,” she points out, “there are more African Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850.”

But serious criticisms of mass incarceration have emerged on the right as well, summarized in a recent essay by Eli Lehrer in National Affairs. Lehrer critiques a system that removes 2 million people from the workforce, produces high levels of recidivism and (relatedly) subjects prisoners to inhumane conditions. Prison order is often maintained by gangs, with the tacit approval of prison authorities. By one estimate, 20 percent of inmates are subjected to coerced sexual contact.

Mass incarceration is America’s tragic success. It is effective and indiscriminate. It has increased safety, and it has deepened resentment.

Lehrer raises the appropriate policy question: Can rates of incarceration be rolled back without compromising safety? His essay makes a good case for “yes,” outlining an approach that “continues to use incarceration as an important policy tool, but that changes the frequency and length of prison stays and vastly improves the circumstances and conditions within prison walls.”

This would involve, Lehrer says, “shortening, but not eliminating, mandatory minimum sentences.” Penalties for routine probation or parole violations would be swift but limited — days behind bars, rather than months or years. (Research indicates that the certainty of punishment in these cases matters more than its severity.) New technologies such as rapid drug tests and GPS tracking make alternatives to incarceration more realistic for some categories of offenders. And Lehrer argues forcefully for maintaining the bright moral line between punishment and degradation. It makes little sense to abuse and embitter inmates when 600,000 are returning to communities each year. Better to provide prisoner reentry programs to ease the transition to civilian life.

There is another effective response to crime mentioned by Lehrer that I’ve seen firsthand. Just out of college I worked at Prison Fellowship Ministries, a religious organization serving prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families. Among inmates, faith can encourage the deliberate choice of a new set of values. It also motivates volunteers who refuse to treat human beings as the sum of their crimes. Any criminal justice reform interested in the repair of broken lives will seek the partnership of religious groups.

Americans have often viewed their criminal justice system in the same way they view their sanitation system — as a mechanism designed to make unpleasant realities disappear. So it is remarkable that criminal justice reform is beginning to show some political momentum. Bipartisan measures that reduce reliance on incarceration have passed in Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia and, of all places, Texas.

Crime is among those rare issues that, over time, have cooled as a culture-war conflict. And one of the main reasons is the emergence of an odd ideological coalition that favors reform. It includes liberals concerned about the racial implications of current policy; libertarians offended by vast, routine imprisonment; and evangelicals who have adopted the humanitarian cause of prisoners.

At the overlap of these groups is a very American conviction: order, yes. But not the assumption of hopeless division.

One thought on “Another conservative decries mass incarceration

  1. I was in attendance at the American Baptist biennial, and heard Michelle speak. She was applauded warmly several times during her address, and she autographed books after the address. They ran out of books while many people were still waiting in line. Patricia heard a couple of guys discussing the lecture afterward–one pro, one con. She felt that the “con” guy was listening, not just arguing and berating. A long time friend approached me to say he took exception to points in her address. I asked what points, and he replied, “She didn’t need to flagellate the church about it.” I said I didn’t hear her flagellating the church, then someone else came along and interrupted our conversation and we never had a chance to resume it. American Baptists are by far the most diverse of any of the mainline denominations with healthy percentages of Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, and a rapidly growing SE Asian representation. And American Baptists have actually been increasing modestly in adherents in recent years. Nevertheless, I am sure that the powers that be in ABCUSA will take some flak for having Michelle Alexander as a featured speaker at a worship session. So I called ABCUSA today to warmly endorse the decision to invite her to the biennial. Dr. Roy Medley, the General Secretary–(American Baptists equivalent of Bishop)–was otherwise tied up, but I did have a good conversation with his executive assistant.

    American Baptists are progressive, at least relatively speaking. And American Baptists are growing. American Baptists give the lie to the myth that you have to be arch-conservative if you want to grow.

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