Thomas Jefferson wanted us to be the most enlightened nation on Earth, then and forever, the most enlightened nation in human history. That meant we had to be the best-educated, best-informed, most peaceful and most harmonious nation on Earth. We had to become the very template for rational, productive, thoughtful and harmonious living. This is the real American Dream.
We were to be the secular shining city on a hill. The rest of the world would look upon us with respect, perhaps even reverence, and envy. Our example would encourage all other peoples to adopt Enlightenment values and Enlightenment reforms. We would set the standards for the pursuit of human happiness. We would prove that humans are up to the challenge of living in dignity, order, reasonableness and modest prosperity.
We have long since ceased to be the most enlightened nation on Earth. We are the richest and most powerful, and in some respects, we are the freest nation on Earth, but we have fallen behind in some essential ways: infant mortality, literacy, freedom from poverty, social harmony.
I hate that. There is no reason that we should have slipped. It is a loss of will as much as anything else. When we committed ourselves to sending a human to the moon and returning him safely to Earth in the decade of the 1960s, we succeeded against what then and now seemed like impossible odds. We completed the 46,876 miles of the vast Interstate Highway System in three decades.
One measure of a nation’s health and enlightenment is its penal system. What follows is going to be depressing, if you want America to be a shining city on a hill.
Our national incarceration rate is grotesquely high. As of 2017 2.3 million Americans were behind bars. That’s five times higher than most of the other nations of the world. Just the names alone of some of our prisons tell the story of violence, racial injustice, degradation, and despair: Sing Sing, Alcatraz, Riker’s Island, Attica, Folsom.
Almost 300 years ago, men like Cesare Beccaria and Thomas Jefferson sought to humanize the prison experience and create the conditions under which genuine social rehabilitation might occur. The fact that virtually everyone now shrugs or snorts at the notion of rehabilitation is a sign of how far our ideals have fallen.
The logic of men like Beccaria and Jefferson went like this: For some reason, a person commits a crime. Civilization cannot permit that crime to occur without a socially agreed-upon response. The first business is to find the malefactor and take him into the custody of the state with as little violence as possible, in other words to arrest his activities. Then she or he must receive a fair trial, with the facts of the case being evaluated by a jury of that person’s social peers. If the malefactor is found guilty, we must devise an appropriate punishment.
Here’s where Beccaria comes in. The punishment should not constitute the civilization’s revenge on the malefactor. To use the Enlightenment’s term, the punishment should not be sanguinary. The society should not exult in the conviction but feel sorrow and even sympathy. It is in the interest of the state to restore social order (thus the arrest, trial and incarceration), but to do so dispassionately, to treat the malefactor as a full human being, and to seek to find ways to rehabilitate her or him. Conditions in prisons should be clean, healthy, tidy, safe, drug and alcohol-free, and in every way humane. Social programming should be available so that the prisoner can get counseling, vocational training, education, career guidance, anger management training and whatever else she or he needs to have a better chance of leading a safe and productive life after the prison term ends. Above all else, the prison should not be a place where an incarcerated individual’s life is coarsened, brutalized, hardened or steeped in depravity. The idea is to provide some degree of rehabilitation. If the prison turns out to be a school for further or deeper criminality, the penal system has failed utterly.
The great Lynn Novick’s new documentary, “College Behind Bars,“ reminds us that authentic and useful prison education is possible. The documentary does not try to whitewash the challenges of prison education and rehabilitation, but it tells us that we would be insane not to try to provide prisoners tools and methods by which they might become reliable and productive citizens.
The great majority of American prisons abandoned their education programs after the Clint Crime Bill of 1994. This was what the Eighth Amendment might call “cruel and unusual punishment.” To throw prisoners into violent and unsafe prisons, where first-time offenders spend their daily lives with those who have made crime their lifelong passions, and to provide no programs designed to return men and women who have done their time into socially harmonious and productive lives is cynical, irrational, counter-productive, and unimaginative.
Remember, the Enlightenment ideal was to reduce, not increase the number of crimes, to eliminate righteousness, vengeance, and cruelty from the penal system, to encourage quiet penitence, and to return the criminal who has paid his or her debt to the broader social order without stigma. The idea was that the criminal was someone who had done a bad thing but was not necessarily a bad person.
I may have a distorted idea of what prison life is like, but here’s what one gets from an American popular culture, which is chock-full of cop programs, criminal justice programs and prison flicks:
- One, you are going to be harassed, beaten and raped.
- Two, you are going to have to fight for your life, so you had better learn how to make a shiv.
- Three, you are going to come out of prison a hardened criminal no matter who you were when you went in.
- Four, the prison guards are themselves violent criminals who have no interest in actually helping you climb out of criminality.
- Five, the food is slop and there is a lot of table banging.
- Six, you are going to get good at sit-ups and pullups.
If the ideal is social security and social harmony, can we get there from here?
Jefferson was no fool. He would not have believed we would ever get to the point of having no need for incarceration. Some percentage of all people are either just wired for crime or nurtured into it by very bad surrounding circumstances. But surely, he would have been appalled by the staggeringly high incarceration rates in the United States. And he would have looked for ways to reform the system to reduce criminality and incarceration to their statistical minimums. He’d start by looking at nations with very low incarceration rates — say Norway and Japan and Switzerland — and try to see if their social conditions are similar to ours and whether their methods might be adapted to American needs.
Most crime is economic crime. Some people are just bad, selfish, violent and lawless, and they could work if they would, but most economic crime is the result of extreme poverty. People are going to get what they need to eat and find basic shelter.
If the economy is configured in such a way that people who would work cannot find work, and they don’t qualify for public assistance that makes it possible for them to subsist, they are going to engage in criminal activity — from robbing a liquor store to joining a street gang to sex trafficking — to find a way to eat and get shelter. It’s really that simple.
So, if you want to eliminate economic crime, you need to begin by doing one of two things. Either you build an economy so that every willing person can work at a living wage or you have to create a comprehensive welfare system — food stamps, free meals in schools, universal health care, subsidized housing, workmen’s compensation, free or nearly free vocational training and direct assistance payments so that every individual and every family can have enough to live in some decency. I’d rather do the former than the latter.
Unfortunately, most Americans are indifferent to this national crisis and a very large proportion of Americans think that the have-nots are bums who just aren’t trying hard enough. While this may be true for a small percentage of social parasites, it is not true for the great majority of poor people, and only a nation that has lost its optimism and its compassion could find this state of things acceptable.