I promised Russell I would ask you something.
We met last week in a medium-security correctional facility. There, I spent a couple of hours talking with a group of men who are studying for their GED. I stressed to them the need for long-term goals, the critical importance of education in an era where good-paying, low-skill jobs are going away, and the importance of refusing to allow oneself to be defined by whatever box of race or class society has placed you in. It was toward the end that Russell asked a question whose exact wording I can’t recall, but whose gist was a simple challenge:
What are you going to do to help me when I get out?
He meant me, personally. And he meant you, personally.
Perhaps the question makes you indignant. This would not surprise me. A generation of conservative “reform” on issues of criminal justice has encouraged many of us to believe the only thing we “owe” those who break the law is punishment, followed by punishment, along with punishment and then punishment. It is a seductive line of reasoning. Who among us is not made furious by those men and women who break and enter and steal and damage and violate and maim and kill and thereby rob us of the right to feel secure in our own persons?
Small wonder, then, that harsh, endless punishment has come to seem such an absolute good that politicians of both the right and the left stumble all over themselves to prove they are “tough on crime.” And none of them dare speak a word about rehabilitation, for mortal fear of being declared that hated other thing: “soft” on crime.
Thus, you get mandatory sentencing guidelines that give a man 25 years for stealing a slice of pizza or kicking down a door. Thus, you get Joe Arpaio, the cartoonish Arizona sheriff, feeding his prisoners moldy bologna and rotten fruit and housing them in tents where the temperature reaches 140 degrees. Thus, you get Troy Davis executed despite substantive doubts about his guilt.
Maybe such things leave you feeling righteous and tough. They should actually leave you feeling concerned, if not from moral questions, then from pragmatic ones. America is now the greatest jailer on earth. Prison overcrowding is a growing problem; we literally cannot build facilities fast enough. As CBS News recently reported, the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but about 25 percent of its prisoners. As CNN recently reported, at 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, the U.S. jails its people at a rate seven to 10 times higher than most any other developed nation.
Either Americans are much more crime prone than, say, the Japanese or the British or this “reform” is insane. Worse, in a system of punishment followed by punishment, the insanity does not end with locking up our citizens in obscene numbers. No, after we set them “free,” we deny them re-entry into the mainstream of society with laws barring them from jobs, housing, loans, voting, schooling. How can you fix your life — why even try? — if you are denied the reward that should follow, i.e., the dignity of full citizenship? We close doors of advancement and opportunity to ex-felons, then wonder why so many end up walking back through the door to prison.
Once upon a time, there was an ideal which held that once a person had paid his “debt to society,” he was owed a second chance. That seems to have gone the way of vinyl albums and 69-cent gas. But our new ideal — punishment and then punishment — is short-sighted and unsustainable.
Maybe you find Russell’s question impertinent. Actually, it could not be more pertinent. What are we going to do to help him when he gets out?
It would be good if we had an answer for him. We might not like the answer he finds for himself.
(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.)