The discourse on crime and punishment in the United States is largely dominated by rhetoric about the need for retribution and vengeance. This has resulted in an insatiable appetite for criminalization and interminably long prison sentences. Popular culture also shows an unseemly tolerance for the cruel treatment of prisoners, reflected in frequent jokes about prisoner rape on TV shows and films. Considering all that, the NY Times is to be praised for a timely editorial piece about the need for rethinking America's approach to crime and punishment. Here are the relevant bits:
...the nation as a whole needs to do much more about laws that marginalize former offenders — and often drive them back to jail — by denying them voting rights, parental rights, drivers licenses and access to public housing, welfare and food stamps, even in cases where they have led blameless lives after prison.
Deterred by barriers to jobs, housing and education, about two-thirds of the people released from prison in New Jersey end up back inside within three years. Since taxpayers spend about $48,000 per prison inmate per year, by some estimates, the state could reap significant savings from even a small decline in the return-to-prison rate.
The proposed reforms in New Jersey seek to end practices under which former prisoners are denied employment because of minor convictions, even in the distant past, and crimes that have nothing at all to do with the work being sought.
The bill would lift the state ban on food stamps and welfare benefits for people with felony drug convictions and would expand education and training opportunities for inmates. And it would end an odious practice under which the prison system earns a profit by overcharging poor families for the collect calls they receive from relatives inside a system. The added cost sometimes forces families to choose between putting food on the table or letting a child speak to an incarcerated parent.
I have a paper forthcoming in a US law journal about alternatives to criminalization for corporate governance offenders. Some of my arguments have broader application. The paper can be downloaded here.