On Prisons and Sentencing


I was reading this article about the sentencing of Norwegian mass-murder Anders Brevik. He was sentenced to the maximum possible penalty under Norwegian law: 21 years in prison. Every five years after that, he’ll be up for parole, but as long as he’s deemed to present a continued threat to society, he will remain in prison. This is an exceptional and unusual state of affairs for the Norwegian prison system.

I agree with the author of the article that this seems to be a fair sentence, and that the 21 year maximum likewise seems fair. That Brevik can then be sentenced to spend more time in five year increments also seems reasonably fair to me, especially given that it’s a very extraordinary thing to have happen under Norway’s laws. This, mind you, from a country that on that grim day last year lost a higher percentage of their population than we did on 9/11.

I also just read an article about how harsh punishment for prisoners makes them more likely, not less likely, to reoffend. A few seconds thought will indicate why this is the case, but if it doesn’t, allow me to go all Jesus and present you with “The Parable of the Cruel Master”.

Once there was a man who had a dog that bit him once. Since that time, he chained up that dog in a small cell, and spent a year feeding it poor quality food, isolating it from other dogs and from humans, and not allowing it to have any real chance to exercise. When, after that year was over, he relented and released the dog, it tore him to shreds. The man was surprised, though only briefly.

The message here is clear. Treat the least among you badly, and you have to expect them to react poorly. To that extent we need massive prison reform. We need to repurpose prisons as a place for reform (call them, oh, I don’t know, “reformatories”), and make them a place where people can come out better than they were when they went in. I know that sounds like silly liberal thinking, but I want you, gentle reader, to ponder this fact:

90% of the people in prison will some day be released from prison.

Given that fact, what do you want for the person who is released? Do you want someone who has been treated poorly, denied education, denied drug treatment, denied work training and goes into the world knowing only the skills they had when they went in? Skills which, I would point out, might be part of the reason they went to prison to begin with?

So keep that in mind as I outline what I would do to reform prisons.

For starters, I’d limit time in prison to people who committed violent crimes, and only to those people. And I’m talking actual violence here. Certain crimes that aren’t what you would consider “violent” in nature sometimes get classified as such by the system. So I’m talking about people who are stabby and shooty and the like. Non-violent offenders should be held in, at the worst, half-way house type facilities or, ideally, be put on house arrest. That saves the system quite a bit of money. Even if the state has to pay for food, utilities, and rent for someone’s apartment because they can’t find a job, that will still likely be cheaper than keeping them in prison.

The other important aspect here, aside from saving money, is that it would keep non-violent offenders away from violent ones. That decreases the odds of them being assaulted or raped, and lowers the odds of them learning violent behaviors. It also enables them to maintain roots within their community, spend time with their family, and continue to be productive while also paying their debt to society. The last parts of that should really appeal to conservatives out there, though somehow I don’t think they will.

Next, I’d improve the prison cells. For people who actually are in prison, the experience, especially in medium and maximum security, is exceptionally unpleasant. Prison doesn’t have to be a place of good times and parties, but there’s no need to make it worse than it has to be. Right now you have many situations where inmates are two or three to a cell that might have about 60 sq ft of floor space. I’d change that to allow only one person per cell, and make sure every cell is at least 8′ x 10′. If someone is stuck in a cell for 23 hours out of the day, we might as well make it reasonably comfortable. I’d also make sure every cell has a nice TV with full cable, though that’s more for the guards than the inmates. Believe me, there’s nothing guards want more than inmates sitting in their cells quietly watching TV all day.

I’d also allow plenty of creature comforts in the cells, especially for the inmates who are in them for almost the entire day. This sounds, I suppose, like coddling and such, but it really isn’t. It’s just compassion, and frankly, if Star Trek taught us anything, it taught us that it doesn’t matter how nice the prison is. If you can’t leave it, it’s still prison. Therefore going out of our way to make it miserable just doesn’t make sense.

Then I’d want full and complete educational and job training opportunities. If someone goes in for a ten or fifteen year sentence and hasn’t graduated high school, I’d offer them the chance to walk out the door with a Masters or Doctorate. It’s been proven time and again that the more education and job training someone has, the less likely they are to commit new crimes.

These are just some very bare-bones, basic ideas for how to deal with this issue. Like I said, bearing in mind that 90% of people currently in prison will someday be released, one would think our society would embrace these ideas and have at least some sense of self-interest in promoting them. One would think that, but given that we live ina country where people routinely vote against things like their class interest, I’m not going to hold my breath on this.

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4 Responses to “On Prisons and Sentencing”

  1. Aleksandr Normandy Says:

    Well, you’re right, in my opinion. I’ve always found it interesting that we call them (in a number of states) “correctional facilities”, but little, if anything, appears to be done for the purpose of “correction”. It’s my opinion, yes, but it seems to me that part of the reason behind this is simply that the general public (those voting for legislators, and on individual initiatives and referenda, etc.) do not want “correction” or “reform”: they want vengeance. As I know you know, and as I presume most of the readers know, there is the old adage that ‘violence begets violence'; so too vengeance beget vengeance. Hence why I’ve many times argued that we should rethink the purpose of prisons, in large part by rethinking the purpose of punishment.

    To add to your premise, I sat down to read the “Opposing Viewpoints” series work on hate crimes, and recently ran across this article; the section in the OV work was covering punishment for hate crimes. Neverminding the vengeance, for a moment, in the case of hate, there’s another sociological item at work, and a fairly obvious one: if hundreds of individuals are incarcerated for hate crimes, and even small numbers of those individuals are able to communicate with each other, isolated from the outside world, their communication with each other can (and very well may) allow their hate to grow; upon release, being consumed by more hate, how can we not expect them to re-offend? Now, we can add the vengeance back to the equation: not only does the individual re-offend, but with more vigour and determination than before, not unlikely offending even worse than previously. (I know I need not point out to you the cycle that will have started here.)

    Being, though, such as I am, I remain of the opinion that prisons should pay for themselves. This can bring us to two equally great things, if applied properly. In the first place, it requires that prisoners will have to work while incarcerated. This means they will be required to develop skills, no shortage of which can be put to use after release (helping cut down on homelessness after incarceration, thus lessening the burden on the public wallet (contributing to it, in fact)). Additionally, presuming that these individuals are employed after release, because they are employed and working, the opportunity for offense can drop significantly (whether or not it will drop depends heavily on whether or not the individuals actually go to work, naturally). Additionally, working in quite a few positions (a barber or hair stylist, cook, brick-layer / construction worker, landscaper, etc) can help socialise the inmates, continuing to develop them socially and psychologically, even more so when these positions are conducted outside the prison complex (construction work and landscaping, to pull from the above). As you (rightly) say, making incarceration more miserable helps no one.

    I can say a large portion of this from some experience too: my late uncle was incarcerated for, as he often reminded me, 27 years, 4 months and 14 days. During that time, he was a chef and later a baker, completed an associate’s degree in psychology (plus another year toward his bachelor’s degree), served as a barber, worked with criminal justice students at a nearby university, and became a certified master electrician. (Yes, despite his mistake, I’m very proud of my uncle.) Following his release, his only re-offense was one by proxy: a passenger in his car was carrying a weapon, and, since it was his car, he was considered to be in possession of the weapon. On his release, he found work within three weeks, and maintained that job assiduously, and taught me quite a few things about electrical work. He proved to be one of the successes that can come out of a properly handled correctional system, despite being in a less-than-caring system. If we build systems that care, though, certainly that can be less accomplishment than the norm; imagine what our society will look like then.

  2. Warren Adams-Ockrassa Says:

    The other side of this is to consider life outside the prison walls. In this nation we don’t seem to offer much by way of social support to people who are not now in prison.

    What made me think of that is the comment about college education, especially advanced degrees. While I agree entirely with the notion of prison reform, I’d like to see higher education available as freely outside prison as it would be inside.

    With guaranteed housing, food, healthcare, and education for all – I know, socialism! – we’d disincentivize at least some crime, and we’d short-circuit some of the despair felt by those who have little or no means to survive daily. It’s much easier and less exhausting to pursue higher learning (or increased skills at a trade or other career) when you’re not struggling all the time to pay for rent, food, and medicine in minimum wage.

    • Chris Says:

      Well, yes, you know I’d certainly favor that sort of thing. In fact, I seem to recall writing a blog article on the topic a while ago. I think we also need to reform laws under which prospective employers are allowed to ask applicants about criminal backgrounds. There needs to be a clearly defined time-limit, and they should only be allowed to ask about crimes relevant to the job. For example, if someone was convicted of drug possession 20 years ago, has had a clean record since, and is applying to work in an office environment, that person’s felony background should not matter and should not have to be disclosed.

      • Warren Adams-Ockrassa Says:

        ‘In fact, I seem to recall writing a blog article on the topic a while ago.’

        I seem to recall you did as well. ;) Just felt it needed reiteration here. Prison is – to my mind – correlated to social failure; the more a society fails, the more prisoners it has.

        ‘There needs to be a clearly defined time-limit, and they should only be allowed to ask about crimes relevant to the job.’

        An excellent point.


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