From last time…
But of course the punishment isn’t the whole story. Those people being punished are real people. What about rescuing, restoring, rekindling, rehabilitating? What about the people who are being punished: does it end with punishment; is punishment the end-game in itself? Do we have any responsibility to participate in helping those who break our rules? Where do forgiveness and grace enter the story? Do we even want them to?
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In 2013 there were approximately 2,220,300 adults incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails. The statistics meant that 1 person out of 110 in the adult population were incarcerated or 0.91%.
Canada’s number was notably lower at 40,147 but so was our population. When the percentages are calculated it still works out to a lower number of 139 out of every 100,000 or 0.14%.
In terms of actual cost to hold prisoners the numbers look very different as well. It costs up to $60,000 per year, per prisoner in the U.S. compared to $118,000 per year in Canada which is twice the amount, likely because wages are higher here.
[The U.S. numbers have increased dramatically during the past couple of decades and now are in the 2.5 million range while continuing to accelerate as suggested in the graphs to the right.] *
Perhaps even more concerning, the 2013 stats show another 4,751,400 adults (1 in 51) were on probation or parole. The reason this is concerning is because of how the justice system works. Basically, the parole system is only usable if a person has money, so poor people can’t get parole. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate, there is one way they can get parole – bail bond. The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world (also Philippines) that have a system like this where private investors profit from the accused. The net result is that it costs money to access this service so poor people become poorer in order to gain temporary freedom.
In the U.S there are thousands of people in prison for nonviolent offences: selling marijuana or stealing a jacket. A disproportionate number are black. Many committed crimes because of mental illness or desperate financial need or drug addiction. Many prisoners are in jail because they simply can’t afford to pay court fines or costs, sometimes as little as $500, so they remain inside rather than be released.
There is much more to be said but basically there is layer upon layer of complexity and cost to just be in the justice system, regardless of guilt. These are mostly poor people and, once in the system, there is little real hope to get out. And no wonder – a court ruling a few years ago officially designated prisoners as ‘slaves of the state’…
Worst of all is the cost to their families economically and emotionally. Opinion: our obsession with punishment is creating new generations of criminals and terrorists. Why? Because so many victims and their innocent children are stuck in a quagmired system without voice, without hope, without grace.
But is imprisoning people for minor crimes actually helping in some way? Is life in prison ultimately a fair way to protect society? Are people being rehabilitated? Also important, is the death penalty justice? Or does it just make us feel good about punishing the bad guys?
UPDATE: Just breaking on the news, Jerome Johnson, a man from Baltimore, was exonerated and released from prison for a crime he did not commit. He had been in prison for 30 years…