This week, my ENG 100 students will be reading, blogging about, and discussing Adam Gopnik's essay, "The Caging of America," published 2 years ago in The New Yorker. Gopnik analyzes two important trends in American society that have taken place since the early 1980s: the massive increase in America's prison population and the impressive decline in urban crime. For many Americans, our national system of mass incarceration, fueled by the failed policies of the War on Drugs, is alarming--no other nation puts so many people behind bars. (No other nation even comes close.) From both an ethical and economic perspective, this is a major problem. But would decreasing the prison population erode the gains that have been made against crime? Are the lowered crime rates that we enjoy now only made possible by the ruthlessness of our "tough on crime" justice system?
Gopnik convincingly argues that this is NOT the case. Nationally, the most dramatic decrease in crime since the 1970s has been seen in New York, which, ironically, is one of the few places that has not seen its rates of incarceration rise. As Gopnik points out, "While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. ... Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison." The reduction in crime had more to do with smart, preventive policing strategies than locking up all the "bad guys."
But if we were to start letting incarcerated Americans out of prison in large numbers, would they have the skills and opportunities to maintain their freedom and thrive? According to Ellen Condliffe Lagemann, a senior fellow for the Bard Prison Initiative, "Of the roughly 600,000 people released from US prisons every year, 50 to 70 percent return to prison." In order for America to deal with its mass incarceration problem, we will need to do more than simply lock up fewer people; we will need to help those who have been locked up access the education they need to transform their lives and obtain stable employment. Nothing has been proven to do this more effectively than higher education programs offered in prisons.
Just last month, in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced a promising, but controversial plan to invest state money into college-in-prison programs. I'm interested to find out what my students think of this idea. Many college students, I'm guessing, would not think favorably about convicted felons getting free college classes while they have to work or take out loans to pay their own tuition bills. Yet, these programs, over the long-term, will likely save taxpayers money by keeping released inmates from returning to prison. Perhaps it depends on how you view "justice" -- is it more about rehabilitation or punishment?