|photo credit: Chris Devers via photopin cc|
My public health concern with prison --- beyond the obvious exposure to violence and disease in prison --- has been gender ratios: with 1/9 young black men incarcerated at any given time, and 1/3 of black men in their life time, prison has reduced the number of marriageable black men, giving more leverage in the dating market among those remaining, and promoted the spread of HIV. The increased practice of trying minors as adults has worsened the problem by sending adolescents to adult jails, where they are often victimized, traumatized, and permanently stigmatized.
Conservatives have lead the charge towards these "tough on crime" policies. Now some prominent conservatives including Grover Norquist seem to have just realized the enormous social and economic costs of this destructive and highly punitive approach. The introduction of the article was promising because it noted all of the social and economic costs of prison, including the generations of unemployable men spit out by the prison system, but the authors seem more concerned with reducing the fiscal burden of imprisonment on states than the economic burden on society caused by the waste of human capital. I was even more disappointed by the partisan slant of the article. As if to make up for their almost liberal introduction, the authors claim that liberals are at fault, in opposite directions: 1960s liberals "ignored" crime and considered law-enforcement "pointless"; unions (prison guards) caused mass imprisonment; and Republican governors are leading innovation in reducing prison costs, although they did feature a policy by liberal state Hawaii.
The American Conservative has been refreshing in its relative lack of partisanship. As happy as I was to see a conservative article noting the real problems with our punitive society --- and I am glad that we can all agree that this is a problem --- I was disappointed by its finger-pointing approach. Many factors have led the US to imprison more of its citizens than any country in history, and it will take a great deal of effort --- including reducing partisan cheap-shots such as "soft on crime" labels --- to dig ourselves out of this hole.