Prison, a barometer of our collective failures?

The scale of incarceration in our country is more than a gauge of domestic crime, it is a socio-economic indicator, telling us how we are doing on the key metrics of a healthy society. Incarceration’s original purpose, to punish crime, ensure public safety, and rehabilitate, is still with us but doesn’t come close to explaining the seven million Americans currently under the care and oversight of corrections.

Key metrics of a healthy society are levels of employment, food security, graduation rates, longevity and, negatively: incidences of chronic disease, discrimination, addiction, and homelessness.

To build and sustain a healthy society, community investments must be made in affordable housing, education, childcare, public transportation, and physical and mental health services. The adjective “affordable” modifies each investment.

Since local jails and state and federal prisons have become the catchall for our failure to make these key investments and we now often jail our social and economic fallout, incarceration has become a powerful indicator of our collective failure to develop strong communities.

The economic slide that leads to prison can begin with the loss of a job, spouse, home, food sources, or the onset of chronic disease or addiction. It then often accelerates rapidly with the onset of stress-related mental illness. The cost to imprison one American runs from $30-90,000 per year. This does not take into account the cost for caring for the children of incarcerated single parents. So, we must ask ourselves if prison is the best and most cost-efficient way of handling our neighbors who fall through the cracks in our communities. In health care we know that an ounce of prevention is the best investment. Isn’t this true of all social and economic investments?

Crime can be parsed into crimes of greed, crimes of pathology, and crimes of need. The first two categories require swift and appropriate justice. But every convicted offender deserves a path to productive re-entry into home and community. Sporadic efforts here are showing promise around the country.

But crimes of need must be viewed differently, as they are largely preventable. Some conservative Christians like to cite the Bible, if out of context, “The poor will always be among us.” Matthew 26:11. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we must assess our own complicity as a society when our efforts to prevent or alleviate poverty are inadequate.

We must shift our social and economic investments from storing our fallout in cages to ensuring that we make the investments in our communities to encourage economic independence, equal opportunity, and decent living conditions.

And if we think job creation is the answer to all our socio-economic problems, we better start building more prisons. Advances in automation, artificial intelligence, and further globalization will continue to erode employment and we’ll need to rethink how to live securely in the future.


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