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If a time traveler from the future showed up in our world today, which of our practices would strike him as most barbarous? When we look back at supposedly civilized societies in the past, we are amazed at how complacently they accepted such obvious evils as slavery, child labor and torture. Surely, people in centuries hence will be similarly astonished at our own moral blind spots. But what might they be? After a little reflection, here's my guess: punishment by imprisonment.
Prisons happen to be one of humanity's more recent inventions. Until a couple of hundred years ago, local jails were mainly for debtors, who were held until they could arrange to have their obligations met. In England, those convicted of crimes used to be fined or whipped or branded -- a "T" for thieves, a "V" for vagrants -- or publicly humiliated by being put in a pillory, sometimes with their ears nailed to the beams. Many crimes, even minor ones, led to the gallows. Until 1820, you could be hanged for stealing as little as five shillings' worth of goods from a shop.
It was in revulsion at the cruelty of such punishments that the modern prison was created. The United States led the way. In the early 19th century, Europeans traveled to these shores to marvel at a new institution called the "penitentiary," where inmates were to be reformed by a regime of silence and hard work. For a century and a half after the creation of prisons, crime dropped steadily across Western nations, even as the severity of punishment diminished. It seemed reasonable to think that as society grew more prosperous and equitable, fewer and fewer people would have to be incarcerated.
But in the 1960's, for reasons scholars still debate, crime began to rise again. (This trend was not confined to the United States; it was also observed in most European countries.) And in response, our criminal justice system started getting more punitive. Legislators showed they were "tough on crime" by passing laws that mandated long sentences for even relatively minor offenses. In the late 70's, as more and more Americans were being crowded into lockup, states went on a prison-building spree. The inmate census doubled, then doubled again and again. Today, this nation keeps more than two million people behind bars -- compared with only 200,000 three decades ago. With 5 percent of the world's population, we account for 25 percent of its prison population.
There are some highly placed people who feel that the urge to incarcerate has gotten out of hand. Recently, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy warned of "moral blindness" in the criminal justice system, and the American Bar Association has just issued a report calling for an end to mandatory minimum sentences and a renewed emphasis on rehabilitation (which recent studies have shown to be effective, despite the scoffing of many conservatives). But there seems to be little popular sentiment for scaling back our prison system too abruptly. After all, the great lockup has been accompanied by a falling crime rate over the last decade. Troubled neighborhoods have become peaceful, and everyday life is more secure, at least from ordinary criminals.
Yet there is a movement afoot today, albeit a tiny one, that aspires to get rid of prisons altogether. The members of this movement call themselves "abolitionists," borrowing the term applied to steadfast opponents of slavery before the Civil War. Since the 80's, an international group of abolitionists -- lawyers, judges, criminologists -- has been holding conferences every few years. According to Instead of Prisons, published by the Prison Research Education Action Project in 1976, the first article of the abolitionist catechism is that imprisonment is morally objectionable and indefensible and must therefore be abolished. Are these people moral visionaries, like their 19th-century namesakes? Or are they simply nuts?
When you take a close look at the supposed justifications for punishment by imprisonment, you find that they don't hold up terribly well in theory or practice. Was the expansion of the prison population really responsible for the drop in crime over the last decade? Then why did states that neglected to adopt tougher sentencing rules enjoy the same improvement as those that did? Do harsher sentences deter people from committing crimes? Then why did the recidivism rate -- that is, the rate at which released prisoners commit new crimes -- actually go up during the prison-building boom?
Even if the deterrent effect of imprisonment is overrated, there are those who feel that lawbreakers should nevertheless get stiff sentences because they deserve it. The idea of making an offender suffer for his crime can be traced to the "blood vengeance" practices of primitive societies. Today, it goes under the more dignified name of retribution, which literally means "paying back." How the suffering inflicted on an offender compensates for his crime has never been clear, unless it is through the vindictive satisfaction it might bring to his victims and society. But is this justice? There is increasing evidence that the most violent criminals are often driven by forces beyond their control. Because of damage to the frontal lobes of their brains caused by birth complications, accidents or brutal childhood beatings, they simply can't contain their aggressive impulses; compared with the rest of us, they live life on a neurological hair trigger. Clearly, society needs to protect itself from these people. But does it need to punish them?
Some abolitionists will concede that the prison system is a necessary evil for now. Their immediate goal is to decarcerate as many categories of prisoner as possible (nonviolent drug offenders, for instance), and to make prisons less debilitating and degrading for those who remain. But can we imagine the practice of coercive confinement withering away entirely? Will it ever follow barbarous punishments like maiming, flogging and hanging into extinction?
If the very idea seems hopelessly utopian, consider a real-world case: Finland. Three decades ago, the Finns had a severe penal system modeled on that of the neighboring Soviet Union, and one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe. Then they decided to rethink penal policy along more humane lines. Finnish prisons became almost ridiculously lenient by our standards. Inmates -- referred to as "clients" or "pupils," depending on their age -- live in dormitory-style rooms, address guards by the first name and get generous home leaves. "We believe that the loss of freedom is the major punishment, so we try to make it as nice inside as possible," one prison supervisor commented. Today, Finland imprisons the smallest fraction of its population of any European country (52 prisoners per 100,000 people, compared with 702 in the United States). Yet its crime rate, far from exploding, has remained at a low level.
That's a pretty impressive experiment in moral progress. As Winston Churchill observed, "Treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country." The American mode of treatment is starting to look less like a necessary evil and more like a peculiar institution.
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