What’s Prison For? Concise diagnosis of a huge American problem

The statistics are familiar but remain startling: America’s incarceration rate per 100,000 is “roughly twice that of Russia’s and Iran’s, four times that of Mexico’s, five times of England’s, six times Canada’s” and nine times that of Germany. In addition, “parole and probation regulate the lives of 4.5 million Americans” – more than twice as many as are confined in prison.


These numbers come at the beginning of Bill Keller’s smart, short new book, in which he tries to explain how America became so addicted to mass incarceration, and how we might finally reform a system which houses a disproportionally Black and brown population.


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Keller reports the most effective ways to reduce the prison population are also the most obvious ones:

  • Make low-level drug crimes “non-crimes”.

  • Divert people into “mental health and addiction programs, or probation or community service”.

  • “Abolish mandatory minimum sentences and encourage” judges to “apply the least severe punishment appropriate under the circumstances”.

  • Give “compassionate release to old and infirm inmates” who don’t pose a real threat to the general population.

The challenge is to get these common-sense ideas to prevail over the rhetoric of politicians who still rail against anyone who is “soft on crime” – the knee-jerk ideology which got us into this catastrophe in the first place.

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