Following the assassination over the past few days of the second Texas prosecutor in two months - both of which are suspected to have been the work of the nationally powerful prison gang known as the Aryan Brotherhood - a number of ideas to reform America's prison system and reduce crime have come into focus, and are worth discussing now. Some are obvious, but some you may not have heard before.
1. End the War on Drugs.
Not only is there no moral right to punish people for what they do to themselves, but no possibility of successful enforcement, as we have learned at all too high a cost in both money and lives lost or shattered over decades of Drug War madness. Punishing people for helping others seek victimless pleasure is equally futile, and repeatedly doubling down on the Drug War has done nothing but create utterly ruthless, invincible, global Super Cartels with tentacles into every nation and criminal syndicate on Earth. It has also inflated the prison population in this country to the highest per capita incarceration rates in the world, forcing state and local governments in many places to spend more on police, jails, and prisons than on education, healthcare, and other services.
The result of the evolution of criminal drug trafficking, the militarization of police forces, and the perversion of sentencing laws into cruel, sadistic, authoritarian measures to lock up harmless people en masse has turned communities into war zones, police forces into occupying militaries, and Prison into the 36th most populous state in the US. It has also turned any number of people who would never have gone into a life of crime into hardened criminals due to the necessities of survival in prison, the lack of legitimate opportunities for released inmates, and the expense and risk involved in maintaining drug habits due to prohibition.
Ending the War on Drugs and all related laws and policies would, in one fell swoop:
- Reduce the stakes of drug-related criminal justice, radically decreasing incidence of shootouts, hostage situations, witness murders and intimidations, and car chases.
- Completely eliminate the single overwhelming revenue stream for organized crime, street-level crime, and terrorist organizations, forcing them to compete for much smaller amounts of money with little or no community complicity.
- Free up law enforcement to pursue violent criminals and high-level property criminals who otherwise are ignored or can't be investigated thoroughly enough under the status quo.
- Free up prosecutors to set rational priorities and do due diligence in choosing what cases to pursue, as well as judges to issue reasonable sentences for real crimes, and free up budgets to give defendants real representation. In other words, restore justice to the justice system.
- Drastically reduce prison populations, associated violence, and the violence and corruption that spills out into the streets from it.
2. Eliminate for-profit prison industries.
There is no reason whatsoever in a civilized, law-based society to tolerate the existence of a "prison-industrial complex" that profits from societal ills and lobbies to exacerbate them by multiplying the number of imprisonable offenses while turning America's court system into an "inmate supply stream" rather than a public service to protect the citizenry, including the accused and the convicted. This phenomenon is parasitic and ultimately lethal to society if allowed to continue, since it has fed the criminalization of American life, the empowerment of ruthless criminal gangs, the elimination of basic freedoms, and the militarization of police forces.
We must insist as an absolute rule that no for-profit industry be permitted to exist that depends for its survival and growth on incarcerating a maximum number of people for a maximum amount of time, and that only people with constitutional authority to do so may hold anyone in custody - and that this authority may not be delegated to contractors. Frankly, this is probably already the case constitutionally, but at the moment corrupt courts would not recognize it.
3. Decentralized incarceration.
Putting hardened criminals all in the same place was always a stupid idea to begin with - since all that happens is that they synergize their criminal skills and learn from each other how best to evade justice - but with the evolution of violent prison gangs that murder public officials it's a system that can no longer be tolerated at all. A violent criminal, gangster, or incorrigible recidivist felon should not even be within sight of another inmate. Frankly, they shouldn't even be within walking distance.
At no point in their entire incarceration should there be any possibility of their seeing, speaking with, or receiving messages from anyone other than guards, families, and attorneys [or doctors, counselors, or other professionals involved in rehabilitation or their legal cases], nor should any moment of their incarceration fail to be recorded on both audio and video maintained in perpetuity except attorney-client conversations. This doesn't eliminate the possibility of messages being relayed, but it certainly reduces the "bandwidth" of criminal communications from broadband to 1980s dialup, greatly advantaging the much slower pace of the state.
Every police station should have its own one or two-cell "prison" - with each cell at opposite ends of the building - capable of safely and humanely incarcerating anyone, and at least some of them should be able to handle Supermax lifers. The additional expense involved in the higher fixed costs of the facilities involved would be more than justified by eliminating prison culture altogether, and somewhat compensated for by the vast reduction in numbers created both by ending the Drug War, eliminating the prison industry, and keeping inmates from being exposed to new criminal opportunities by prison culture.
4. Absolute limit on population % of incarcerated people at any given time.
There is no excuse for almost 0.7% of a nation's entire population being in prison at any given time, let alone for that figure to rise to whole number percentages on the part of racial minorities. Impose an absolute limit on the percentage of the population that can be incarcerated at any one time, and if that limit is passed, a "sentencing austerity" system is imposed where an increasing number and severity of crimes cannot result in prison until the numbers go down again. If numbers are that high on a sustained basis, obviously imprisonment isn't working, so governments should be forced to look at something else. What that limit should be is an exercise for experts, but obviously the current prison population is multiple times larger than any sane standard.
This forces states and the federal government to address what's actually going on rather than just trying to brutalize their way to a better society. It would also prevent government from trying to keep any lingering prison industry alive by imposing harsher sentences on non-drug crimes to compensate for an ending of the Drug War. They would be forced to prioritize, and forced to pay attention to things other than jail in order to prevent and address crime. Sorry, Judge de Sade, you don't get to lock up some kid in the federal pen for ten years for driving across state lines two miles from his house with a stolen candy bar.
Now, these measures would be very politically difficult to implement, but the first step is simply acknowledging that they should be implemented, because the status quo is inexcusable, idiotic, and unsustainable. We must start saying "No" to the Axis of violent criminal gangs, militarized police, and corrupt corporate industry that have worked together to parasite off the suffering of the American people and turn our nation into a giant prison where no one is safe either from crime or from the people allegedly working to punish it (but actually made to work on its behalf by the aforementioned villains).