if we are going to put millions in prison, WE should make millions of decisions

(Washington, DC) Our jails and prisons hold 1.6 million people: the highest incarceration rate in the world. One percent of us are incarcerated at any given time, not counting almost 14 million ex-fellons. These rates are much higher for young adults and especially for young men of color. There are 1.5 million children with at least one parent in prison. When you consider that prison rape and the use of solitary confinement (which causes severe mental illness) are common, it is clear that we are sentencing many of our fellow citizens to conditions similar to torture. Not to mention that it costs us about $23,000/year to incarcerate a person in the United States.

We are doing this–choosing to do it by passing referenda and by preferring politicians who support minimum sentencing laws. According to brilliant forthcoming work by Albert Dzur, we are motivated in part by distrust for lawyers and judges, whom we see as elite and effete. Certainly, hatred for whole classes of people whom we call criminals plays a role–an emotion that is at least tinged with racism and class prejudice.

We make these decisions abstractly about nameless people and generic laws. Although 1.6 million people are incarcerated, the American people people have made many fewer than 1.6 million decisions, because most prison terms result from plea-bargaining. Distrusting lenient professionals, we impose punitive laws on top of a system that continues to function by negotiation among professionals. In turn, the lawyers and judges who negotiate plea bargains become inured to individual circumstances as they deal with one case after another.

If we are going to put our fellow citizens in prison, we should do it. They should be tried by juries of their peers who are required to listen to their stories. New to the courtroom, but guided by experienced professionals, the juror is an ideal listener.

I would endorse this proposal even if it didn’t change the incarceration rate. We simply have the responsibility to make decisions of such importance. But Dzur and others suggest that when we act as jurors, our beliefs and attitudes change. We trust the system more and make more nuanced (and often more merciful) decisions about particular cases. Thus I would expect rates of incarceration to fall if we had to put our fellow citizens in prison one at a time instead of en masse by the million.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.