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Unjustifiable Incarceration

Feb 3rd, 2020 | Category: Peer Voices

Why does Texas incarcerate at a much higher rate than any other state in the U.S.? The justifications for locking up so many Texans really doesn’t fit the legal justifications that all jurisdictions use to punish criminals.  

There are four historical justifications for punishing wrongdoings to maintain an ordered society. Deterrence (general and specific), rehabilitation, incapacitation, and retribution are the reasons sociologists identify for taking a person’s liberty by removing them from society. 

General deterrence is the belief that by punishing people criminally for particular activity, other people will be deterred from engaging in that activity in the future. For example, society doesn’t like to have thieves roam around freely, taking the other members’ property and peace of mind. Thus, the law against this says “we will punish a thief to show other would-be thieves that this behavior is unacceptable.”

Specific deterrence, on the other hand, is the belief that by punishing a particular person criminally, he or she will be deterred from committing that crime in the future. Tending to show that people act rationally and are self-interested, specific deterrence works because the punishment is more painful than the crime is pleasurable. Repeated drug dealing is a good example of how this should work. 

But what happens when the drug dealer is also a drug user? How effective can deterrence really be if Texas has seen everything from the crack epidemic to the opioid crisis to moves towards reducing punishments for marijuana use? This brings me to the next justification – rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation is the belief that a person convicted of a crime can be “cured” while incarcerated or under official supervision. While we certainly are not short on drug convictions, the rehabilitation or treatment part is tremendously lacking. During my days in the criminal justice system, a person needing treatment could not even get reading materials, much less anything aimed at treating the underlying cause of criminal behavior – drug abuse. 

So, if we can agree that this is a health issue more than a crime issue, shouldn’t our jails and prisons have programs geared towards recovery? Unless we are just holding people, or restraining them, there must be a better justification for locking up huge numbers of people. These are citizens that will at some point return to society. But with fewer rights and chances to legitimately participate in their communities.

Restraining people from committing further harms to society is what sociologists called incapacitation. It is the simple recognition that putting someone in prison will keep that person from doing any further harm, at least outside the prison walls. Some crimes, such as malicious murders, sexual assaults, and the like surely need incapacitation. But why is the system so overpopulated with less serious offenders?

According to the Department of Justice’s statistics, an estimated 14% of sentenced prisoners (182,400) were serving time in state prison for murder or non-negligent manslaughter. An additional 13% of state prisoners (164,800) had been sentenced for rape or sexual assault. Incapacitation should separate the truly bad from the sick, but the statistics tell a different story.

The last justification for punishing crimes is retribution. When someone steals your stuff don’t you to have right to just get mad? Retribution is the belief that we should punish a convicted criminal severely in order to give him just what he deserves for his conduct and/or simply as a matter of righteous vengeance. In other words, state executed pay back! This is old-fashioned, eye for an eye justice. 

So, looking at the high number of people being incarcerated in Texas, which is it? Are we really getting them help? (rehabilitation) Are we trying to deter them or others of future crime? (deterrence) Or is it that we need to restrain them from further harms and get even with them because we are mad? (incapacitation and retribution)

We don’t get mad at and shouldn’t be arresting people off the streets for being sick. But isn’t that what the Texas criminal justice system looks like? Inhumane, cold-hearted, and unjustifiable incarceration serves to benefit no one. Until there is a legitimate justification for high incarceration rates, our focus needs to shift from criminal justice to public health.

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