Thursday, May 08, 2008

The Problem With Prison

Growing doubts about the value of prison as the country's main mode of crime reduction have hit the Wall Street Journal. A good piece by Gary Fields on Tuesday, May 6th, points out that violent crime is growing again, but that a surprising explanation has cropped up. April 2008 was about 20 percent deadlier than April 2007, and that "the usual reasons - the economy, poverty, gangs and crews, and the availability of firearms" have something to do with it, but can't by themselves explain this sharp a rise.

The explanation that has been "little explore" is "the migration of the prison culture back to the streets. As nearly 700,000 convicts a year return home, some of them may be bringing prison culture with them. 'This is part of the price we're paying for 20 years of mass incarceration,' said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at New York City's John Jay College of Criminal Justice" (A 16).

What Kennedy means by "prison culture" is the centrality of "respect." "Disrespect can lead to lethal responses at the slightest provocation. . . . There are now many people on the streets who live by a prison code, as the prison population has ballooned to 2.2 million from 330,000 in 1980."

This too is not a total explanation, but mass incarceration has its own noir "blowback" that is finally getting some public attention.

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