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 Writer's Desk 

January 16, 2006
Vol. 3, No. 35



Robert Drinan Today's U.S. prisons ignore need for rehabilitation

By Robert Drinan, S.J., NCR contributor

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During the decade from 1971 to 1981, as a congressman from Massachusetts, I was a member of the House Judiciary Committee that oversees prisons. I visited many federal jails. They were gloomy places, but in that decade there was at least some semblance that rehabilitation was one of the objectives of imprisonment.

Twenty years later, the number of inmates in all prisons in the United States has quadrupled. There are 2.1 million people behind bars. Over half of them are African-Americans. The number of Hispanics and women is increasing. The recidivism rate is high -- over 50 percent. The United States has 25 percent of all the prisoners in the world, though it has only four percent of the global population of 6.3 billion.

A report of the Sentencing Project, a prison research and advocacy group, reveals that almost 10 percent of all prisoners in the United States are now serving life sentences. In New York and California the number of lifers is almost 20 percent. The growth in the number of persons doomed to prison forever can be attributed to judges being denied any discretion to limit the sentences for certain crimes. In six states and in the federal system, a life sentence now automatically means life without parole.

The report of the Sentencing Project records that there are 23,523 inmates serving a life sentence who were mentally ill at the time of conviction and whose acts might have been caused by their illness. The outpouring of literature protesting the conditions of America's prisons was recently advanced by a surprising voice: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative Republican appointed by President Reagan. In testimony before Congress, Justice Kennedy noted that the United States has a per capita incarceration rate eight times higher than most Western European countries.

Kennedy continued, "Something is very wrong. Fifty-five percent of those in federal prison -- and we have over 150,000 in federal penitentiaries -- are [there] for drug offenses, nonviolent crimes."

Kennedy then added this amazing statement: "The mandatory minimums are, in my view, unfair, unjust, unwise."

Adding to the spirit of vindictiveness that permeates public discussion about prisons is the new movement to give legal rights to the victims of crime.

There is little serious popular attention to the horrors in the penal system that have emerged in the last 20 years. The enormous costs of prisons are mentioned, but states and counties continue to issue bonds for the construction of more jails.

The recent appearance of corporate criminals has complicated the scene. No one feels bad if the felons involved in the Enron scandal are sentenced to some hard time.

I correspond with a prisoner in a federal jail. He was convicted for white-collar crimes involving insider trading and securities. He is a lawyer and a former public official. Is a sentence of seven years a just punishment for crimes in which no one was hurt physically and when the accused could do constructive things for his family and his community? The present anger at corporate malefactors deserves to be acknowledged. But what about restitution and public service as an alternative to jail?

For a century before 1980, the United States operated a penal system with the goals of punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. Parole and probation were the usual tools to carry out these objectives. Those teachings are now underutilized if not abolished. Now the overarching objective seems to be punishment, even vengeance.

The great question, of course, is the extent to which the presence of penalties deters crime. The whole theory of law is that the threat of a severe penalty will induce compliance with the law. But there are certain small groups of people who are not deterred from engaging in antisocial conduct. Can the possibility of incarceration deter them? We don't know.

There are some statistics that seem to indicate that crime has declined because the number of prisoners has quadrupled. But dozens of factors besides increased incarceration have helped to produce that result.

Until recently, prisons were called "correctional institutions." Is it possible to reconsider that idea?

Religious bodies in America have expressed concern about the dramatic increase in the number of prisoners in America. The chaplains of prisons have a national organization, but their capacity to bring about systematic change inside prisons seems to be limited.

The sad fact is that there is hardly any public voice of concern for the 2.1 million Americans now behind bars. In several states, ex-felons may not vote. This means that some 4 million persons, mostly black men in southern states, are disenfranchised.

Concern for prisoners is one of the basic Christian virtues. Christ mentioned concern for inmates on several occasions.

Would it not be wonderful if we had a Catholic group -- open to all people -- that spoke up for justice for prisoners and kindness toward their families?

Longtime NCR contributor, Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. His e-mail address is drinan@law.georgetown.edu.
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