I encourage everyone to read this full article on an interview with Professor Robert G. Lawson in the Courier Journal. Bob Lawson is that rare individual who is willing to go against the popular tide and critical examine a position most take for granted and it was an honor to be taught by him. The popular position is that we must be tough on crime; being tough is the only way we can keep our families safe. This mantra has certainly won plenty of elections for Lexington’s Commonwealth Attorney, Ray Larson. And yet, the evidence is showing that popular notion to be flawed. For those who won’t read the entire article, I’ve included some especially pertinent excerpts quoting Professor Lawson:
“Now, here’s what I say to the public. Most of the inmates we lock up in the jail system are going to be in there for a while, and then they’re going to come out of there. They’re going to come out of there, in my opinion — because of the way we’re treating them — meaner than they were when they went in. Now whenever you look beyond the jails to the corrections system itself — I’m talking about prisons and what we’ve been doing now for almost 30 years — we’ve got so many locked up in this country — we’ve got 2.25 million people locked up. We’re releasing every year from just the federal and state prison system 500,000 people. They’ve been kept there longer than at any time in our history. They’ve been kept away from their families longer, away from their communities longer; they have been kept under the worst conditions in our recent history; they’ve had less done for them than any group in our recent history, all because of the number that we’re locking up, and we’re releasing them into a re-entry system that is incapable of helping them. Because there are so many on probation or parole — we’ve got about 5 million in the country on probation or parole.”
“Now, I’m down there going through these jails and I hear discussion by these jailers about a change in the standards. I’m looking and I find in virtually every jail I’m in inmates sleeping on the floor. So I come back and I get into these regulations and I discover it’s 2005 and they have lowered their standards now to 40 square feet per inmate. You know how much space there is? Stretch out your arms and circle yourself, and it’s that much space.
Why does that matter?
In our country, under our system, we have to insist on decent treatment of people we lock up.
And then, what I would say to the public is that you had better realize all of these people are going to emerge from these places and they’re going to live beside you. They’re going to live in our communities. And if we put them under conditions that make them worse than they were when they went in, then I think we pay the price. And I quite frankly think the day of reckoning for that is at hand, because we’ve been doing this now for 25 years.”
“Here’s another thing we do: As we’ve gotten overloaded, they used to have to have a face-to-face meeting with inmates when they are up for parole. Now you still have to have a face-to-face meeting between the parole board and the inmate if you’re in prison, but if you’re in jail they don’t see them face to face.
If I’m trying to find inmates who would be more likely to stay out of trouble if they got out of jail, and would not threaten public safety, it would be the ones in the jail and not the ones in the prison. The serious offenders are the ones in the prison system. But the rates show that more prison inmates get paroled.”
“Well, the public first. I think the public needs a better understanding of what is going on here. The public needs to understand what we’ve done here, and what we’re doing and whether or not it makes any sense. And it’s my belief that what we’re doing here does not make any sense, whether you’re talking about the way you treat people or whether you’re talking about crime control.
You take a bunch of people, lock them up in close confinement with a television set up on the wall, and that’s all they do — and they do that for years. And they’re in there together, a broad mixture of people, none of which are model citizens — I guarantee you there’s no discussion going on there about how to improve the school system. That’s not what they’ll be talking about.
I don’t think there is an appreciation of the fact that there will be a fallout from this sooner or later. And I believe it’s apt to be sooner rather than later.
In this state, we’re not willing to pay for things we agree with, like increased quality of education. Isn’t it a big leap to think people would support making conditions more humane for inmates of jails and prisons?”
“So the solution isn’t locking people up for longer periods of time. It’s what?
Distinguishing between people that we should be afraid of, that we would lock up, and people that we’re mad at.
And who should we want to lock up, and who are we just mad at?
We’re mad at drug offenders. We’re mad at people that won’t support their kids. Someone recently was quoted in the paper saying there are 1,000 people in prison for non-support of their children. You’re taking a guy that won’t support his children, and we’re locking him up in prison. The average cost here, $18,613 a year — does it make sense to take somebody who won’t support his children, lock him up and pay that kind of money to keep him?
When we wrote the penal code in 1974, I remember this argument. We couldn’t decide whether non-support should be a Class B misdemeanor, which would have 90 days in jail, or a Class A misdemeanor, which would give him up to 12 months in jail. Well, we finally settled on the high one. It could be a lower penalty, but that would be the maximum.”
I suspect that Professor Lawson is correct in that we are approaching a time when the consequences of the last 30 years becomes inescapable (sort of like what’s happening with global warming). I also suspect we will resist change for a decade or so more just to be sure we were wrong. Hopefully, though, Bob Lawson will plant seeds that will take root and grow.