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The proper goal of prison reform is the elimination of prisons. Not just reducing the number of prisoners, eliminating prisons entirely. America invented prisons; we incarcerate the most prisoners both absolutely and as a percentage of population. Thus it is up to us to undo the damage we have done, both here and around the world, as we have exported the concept and the hardware to make it it happen.
Our first step should be to eliminate the profit motive in incarceration. If imprisonment is a profit center for someone or some organization, there is an incentive to increase profits by increasing imprisonment. That must stop immediately. It also presents a hardship for the friends and relatives of prisoners when the prisoners are relocated to for-profit prisons that are located at a distance.
There are approximately two million people imprisoned in the US at this time. When you consider the number of friends and relatives affected by the imprisonment, you can easily be referring to ten million plus US residents feeling some degree of negative impact.
The next step is to decriminalize victimless crimes, those of adult sex workers and drug users. Our prisons and courts are clogged with repeat offenders in non-violent crimes. This step would make our prison populations much smaller and easier to manage.
Next we must make school a positive experience for our poor and minority youth. Their schools now are factories geared to produce a never-ending supply of new inmates for the prison system. Geoffrey Canada, author of the Harlem Children’s Zone, has developed a plan that actually works. The Obama administration is a supporter and will introduce Canada’s method to 20 additional urban areas.
The above actions taken together will reduce prison populations in my estimate by 75%. That will leave a prison population consisting of hard-core, violent prisoners, supermax prisoners in supermax cells. To be investigated: how much do we create supermax prisoners to fill the supermax cells? Certainly these prisoners will be the most difficult to remove from prisons and it may not be possible to accomplish a zero prison population within the lifetimes of those already imprisoned. More on this at a future date.
Finally, technology is making it possible to incarcerate people in their own homes using electronic devices. This may be the best option for crimes against property. I believe that incarceration at home would be cheaper than locking someone into a prison cell, and the prisoner would not be deprived of the support of friends and family.
In the 1850s, few could imagine a world without slavery. Today, few can imagine a world without prisons. Yet it is achievable. Our society would be a better place for those we now imprison and for their friends and family members without the dislocation and stigma of prison. It would be a better place for all of us without the expense of maintaining prisons if we are able to prevent most crimes and rehabilitate those who make mistakes.
Please see America’s prisons | Smart on Crime | Tough on crime