Sunday 12 June 2011

Why we shouldn't follow America's lead, as far as "justice" is concerned

A series of pieces in the media have focussed my attention in recent weeks on the shockingly high proportion of US citizens who are incarcerated. It started with an article in The Economist about high rates of repeat offending:

“One in every 100 American adults is in prison or jail, one in 31 is under correctional supervision – and after their release, most will find themselves back behind bars. According to a new Pew report, 43% of American offenders are returned to their state prison within three years of their release.”

The article goes on to describe a number of programmes which are having varying degrees of success at cutting re-offending rates. It also points out the enormous cost of the prison and jail system - $60 billion per year: “a year’s stay at a state prison costs about $45,000 – Harvard would be cheaper.”

A few weeks later I noticed this fascinating documentary by Louis Theroux, in which he visits Miami’s biggest jail and interviews several of the inmates. This is the establishment where alleged criminals are held prior to trial, so from a legal standpoint every inmate is innocent (until proven otherwise). Nevertheless they are subject to abysmal living conditions with twenty people to a cell, and a brutal dog-eat-dog culture where beatings are an everyday occurrence. Those convicted then face a further stint in prison. Given the casual aggression which is part of the daily life in jail, it is easy to see why parolees trying to re-enter society have trouble fitting in.

Another facet of the ‘prison dilemma’ was described in a cover article in last weekend’s Financial Times. Economist Martin Wolf wrote about a new report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy which calls for an end to the escalating, destructive war of drugs and adoption of a policy of treatment rather than criminalisation.

“The policy on which the world has engaged for decades, at the behest of the US, is a disaster. While failing to reduce the ills of drug use at which it is addressed, [the ‘war on drugs’] has created massive collateral damage: the spread of avoidable diseases; use of drugs in dangerous forms; mass criminalisation and incarceration; a gigantic waste of public resources; corruption; creation of a cross-border network of organised crime; and the subversion of states.”

Prohibition, he points out, simply doesn’t work: where there is demand, there will be supply, and waging a war against the supply chain is pointless when the root of the problem is in your own back-yard.

Clearly something is amiss with the American system of so-called justice. As Martin Wolf, Louis Theroux and the Economist make clear, the system which the US has constructed is not one which the rest of the world ought to imitate. And it is one that, over time, most Americans will surely realise is economically and socially unsustainable.

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