I have visited a number of people in prison over the years. They are people who were already convicted of crimes and were — or are — serving their sentences in public and private prisons. Sometimes these people have been shackled when we met, or they have been behind plexiglass. Most often though, I meet with people who are seated at a table with me and they have freedom of movement within the room or fenced area, and the most noticeable distinction between us is their orange prison jumpsuits. I have often wondered during such meetings, “Why is this person in prison?” Or more pointedly, “Why is it necessary for public safety for this person to be in prison?” They seemed no different to me than the people I meet outside the prison walls. Is confining people in prisons for years — at great taxpayer expense — really our best idea?

We have elected so many people to make our criminal laws based on thoughtless slogans. “Tough on crime”, “Can’t do the time, don’t do the crime”, “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key” are a few that come to mind. These mantras eliminate consideration of the individual who may be in the justice system because of their worst day. Our best and worst days do not define us. All our days are better reflections of who we are.

There is another expression I sometimes hear and have thought to myself: “There but for the grace of God go I”. How many people did things when they were young – the same things for which so many are incarcerated — but didn’t get caught, only to mature and become model family members, workers, and citizens? How many very good people can look back on their own youthful indiscretions with gratitude that their guardian angels were working overtime? A lot of people, I think, which begs the question, “Why do we tolerate such harsh punishments for others?” So many people are in prisons because of their worst days and bad laws, and their families suffer as well. And in most states, it costs taxpayers more to imprison a person for a year than it does to send a person to a state university with a full ride.

For those of us living relatively happy lives as good citizens, do we really believe it would have been necessary for us to serve time in prison for any earlier indiscretions? What about for beloved family members and friends? How would we want them treated if they made some serious mistakes? Might we not continue to love and forgive them (and ourselves) and hope they get another chance? If we can see the good in those we love despite their errors, can we not assume that those same good qualities are present in those we put behind bars?

To be certain, this is not written in disregard of terrible crimes and tragedies that do occur. The public needs protection from some people, and some people may need protection from themselves. But our criminal justice system is designed to take all of those imprisoned to places that are cruel, out of sight and out of mind. Prisons are for punishment and are not for rehabilitation or deterrence. They are not places we ever want to be, or see those we love, regardless of our mistakes.

The Prison Policy Initiative’s March 2024 annual report on crime provides some insight:

It’s true that police, prosecutors, and judges continue to punish people harshly for nothing more than drug possession. Drug offenses still account for the incarceration of over 360,000 people, and drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system. And until the pandemic hit (and the official crime data became less reliable), police were still making over 1 million drug possession arrests each year,  many of which lead to prison sentences. Drug arrests continue to give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, hurting their employment prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offense.

Nevertheless, 4 out of 5 people in prison or jail are locked up for something other than a drug offense — either a more serious offense or an even less serious one. To end mass incarceration, we will have to change how our society and our criminal legal system respond to crimes more serious than drug possession. We must also stop incarcerating people for behaviors that are even more benign.

We build our prisons in remote areas so that we don’t have to think about the people inside them. They are truly out-of-sight and out-of-mind. Prisons can be scary places, so we fear them and the people inside. This allows us to de-humanize the people inside the prison walls. If we can just see ourselves in those behind bars, we would demand change and dismantle this cruel system.


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