One of the most insightful and illuminating treatises ever written about the United States and its democracy was penned by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville. Considered one of the brightest minds of the 19th century, Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” is ranked as one of the top must-read books for those studying or seeking to understand the fundamentals of American political life, and the nature and role of equality and individualism within our democratic system.
Yet the young French sociologist and political theorist, who was only in his mid-20s when he traveled to the U.S. in 1831, came ostensibly to cover not its political system, but the young nation’s penal system. For around nine months he journeyed throughout the nation visiting prisons from Michigan to Louisiana. His travels even took him through Mobile.
“On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application to France” was quickly published by Tocqueville and his traveling companion, Gustave de Beaumont, after returning to France. The young French aristocrat had become concerned about this subject because during his time as an apprentice magistrate in the Versailles Court, he saw the woeful and destructive effects of an ill-conceived and managed penal system on broader society.
Tocqueville observed how France’s penitentiary system basically reinforced and perpetuated criminality, and the prisons ended up being nothing more than “crime schools.” It was a system marked by dysfunction and managerial laxness.
Tocqueville believed the health, vitality and continuity of a civil society, to a large degree, is impacted by the state of its penal system. A bad one can have bad effects for civil society. America’s system, he felt, had much insight to offer his European homeland.
Flash forward 185 years. If Tocqueville were able to survey America’s penal system today, I don’t think he would have the same assessment.
Most today are aware of the woeful statistics. An article in the Jan. 20, 2015, edition of The Economist titled “Jailhouse Nation” observes, “With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States holds roughly a quarter of its prisoners: more than 2.3 million people, including 1.6 million in state and federal prisons and over 700,000 in local jails and immigration pens. Per head, the incarceration rate in the land of the free has risen seven-fold since the 1970s, and is now five times Britain’s, nine times Germany’s and 14 times Japan’s. At any one time, one American adult in 35 is in prison, on parole or on probation. A third of African-American men can expect to be locked up at some point, and one in nine black children has a parent behind bars.”
Grappling with severe overcapacity and dysfunction, Alabama’s prison system has become the poster child for penal system mismanagement. As Tocqueville noted almost 200 years ago, such a situation can have dire consequences for broader civil society. The simple adage of “locking up and throwing away the key” for every offender is rife with all type of ill and unintended consequences.
Most likely desiring some type of “legislative win” that could blunt the mounting focus and negative scrutiny he’s been receiving for his very public moral transgressions, Gov. Robert Bentley was zealous to get the $800 billion prison consolidation and construction bill through the Legislature. It died in the final minutes of the legislative session.
The main thrust of the bill is the building of four “mega-prisons,” which would address the overcrowding issue, but as we’ve been able to see, the goal of prison is, or should be, not just the housing of offenders, but the rehabilitation of them as well. Prison is, and should be, designed as punishment for crimes against society, but also should be an instrument to help change negative behavior.
Prison should be more than a warehouse; it should also be a tool to help facilitate integration back into civil society in a way that positively benefits society, thereby reducing the chance of repeat criminal actions by an offender.
Almost $1 billion is a lot to spend on prisons, especially without including more than adequate funding for multifaceted programs and policies throughout the criminal justice system to keep prisoners from returning to the system. Recidivism, the tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior — especially criminal behavior — has shown to be increased by incarceration in very large penal institutions. Large prisons have also been shown to facilitate increased gang activity.
According to Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney at the Equal Justice Initiative, “The crisis with [Alabama] prisons has to do with culture and management; it’s not something that can be solved by just building new prisons.” The infrastructure problems in Alabama prisons are very real, but the more critical and vital issues facing the Alabama corrections system are not going to be met by just building mega prisons.
Since 1977, changes in Alabama’s criminal statutes have caused the state’s prison inmate population to increase more than 840 percent. As the population has skyrocketed, so has the cost. In being “tough on crime” we’ve been tough on ourselves, particularly fiscally, and the impact on communities socially through such a policy has been tough as well.
A report issued by The Pew Charitable Trusts shows that for all our “toughness,” Alabama’s crime rate only dropped 19 percent between 1994 and 2012, topping only six other states. Our approach may have been tough, but it hasn’t proven very smart.
There’s a good chance the governor may call a special session to address the failure of the passage of the prison bill, among other things. If so, let’s hope that if consensus is reached on this issue, it’s on a wise and smart plan, not just an expedient one, or one that scores political points. If not, as the past and history has shown, it’s not just criminals who will pay a price, but all of us.
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