Time To Uber-ize Punishment
I am the only person I know who puts “visit a prison” on her vacation itinerary.
Mostly, I have to resign myself to seeing prisons that have been put into retirement – not just anybody can walk into a functioning facility. There was my 2007 trip to Kilmainham Gaol, the Dublin prison that held both common thieves and one of Ireland’s presidents, Eamon de Valera (you’ve seen it too, if you watched the Daniel Day-Lewis film “In the Name of the Father”). Last year, I visited the Morrin Centre, the home of Quebec City’s original jail and now, ironically, a beautiful library. Visiting Alcatraz Island is on my bucket list.
Blame it on my day job. I work with Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), a nonprofit organization that advocates for the reform of automatic, decades-long prison terms for nonviolent offenders. I regularly correspond, talk, and visit with prisoners serving five, 10, 20 years or more in federal prison for as little as running errands for their drug dealer-turned-boyfriend or selling small amounts of drugs to help fund their own addictions. Visiting prisons always reminds me what – and who – prisons are for.
Prisons are an antiquated solution to crime. Nothing confirmed this for me like my recent visit to Venice, Italy. I took the “Secret Itinerary” tour of the ancient Doge’s Palace, once home to Venice’s leaders and a few of its notable criminals. I saw the cells that housed Casanova until his infamous escape. I crossed the Bridge of Sighs, the walkway that offered prisoners a final view of the beautiful Venice lagoon (thus, the sighing) before beginning their terms in the prison next door. This “new” prison was built in the 1580s; the oldest prison cells in the palace date back to the 12th century.
Walking through the cells, with their heavy doors and thick bars, my own sigh escaped. And 900 years later, we are still using this outdated solution to fix modern-day problems, I thought.
In the federal court system last year, 88 percent of all offenders received prison sentences – not probation, not time in a halfway house, not community supervision, just a prison cell. These were not people sentenced for violent crimes – two thirds were drug offenders or immigration violators. There’s a reason U.S. taxpayers pay $80 billion annually to house the world’s largest prison population. Prison isn’t just our default response to crime, but all too often, the required response. When a mandatory minimum sentence applies, a judge cannot use a less costly or more effective option, even if it is available and merited. Prisons are the oldest, least innovative, most expensive, and most family-crushing punishment we have in the U.S. today, short only of execution.
It all might make sense if prisons worked, but they are poor performers. In the federal system, about 40 percent of offenders will reoffend; in some states, that number is above 60 percent. Any other technology that failed 60 percent of the time would long ago have been reconsidered – or abandoned.
States across the country are developing alternatives to prison that are cheap, effective, innovative, and less damaging to families. Drug courts connect addicted offenders with treatment, jobs, and accountability – all while keeping the person in the home and community. New probation programs use short but certain punishments – as little as a couple days in jail – to teach offenders to avoid crime, delay gratification, and make better choices. Some states are reserving prison cells for violent offenders and monitoring nonviolent ones with GPS trackers. The results should not be surprising: states using these options are shrinking their prison populations and seeing crime drop.
There will always be some need for prisons, and any alternatives adopted should be rigorously tested, evidence-based, and cost-effective. But for many offenders, we can do better than the ancient Venetians. As Grover Norquist said in a recent speech supporting sentencing reform, a society with the technology to build Uber can think up something much smarter and cheaper than prison. The first step is eliminating mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent offenders. Innovative solutions can only work if prison isn’t the only choice, and that requires leaving the dark ages of punishment behind.