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Who Is Biased Against Sentencing and Prison Reform?
By John Dewar Gleissner, Esq
Published: 04/28/2014

Jail doors More people than you think.

Private prison company bias is a no-brainer. So is the opposition from labor unions for correctional officers. Politicians naturally do not wish to appear soft on crime, because otherwise they lose their jobs. Not many prisoners vote or are in the right place to vote. Some communities need the jobs prisons provide. The public is biased about crime generally, and believes crime rates are going up when they are actually going down. Many want prison to be tough and scary. Crime victims are not too worried about terrible prison conditions, and who can blame them? Taxpayers are not inclined to spend money on prisons. Prison walls and fences naturally block the flow of information, commerce and visitors. Educated, law-abiding and intelligent people do not have much in common with prisoners, and are thus prejudiced on those scales. Businesses generally realize prisoners do not buy things very often and they are not allowed to market inside prisons. Advertisers, on Madison Avenue or elsewhere, do not care about prisons. Few non-profit organizations favor prisoners. Prison industries are hampered by state and federal restrictions and cannot fully succeed. Most of us are disinclined to think about prisoners or their plight.

The media prefer to run sensational stories about multiple deaths, guns, drugs and egregious criminal behavior. Once the offender is sentenced, the story usually ends. The internet does not often penetrate prison walls. Few inmates have access to computers. Talk radio never has prisoners on the air to talk. Many bad things in prison are never publicized. The media is necessarily biased because they do not often visit prisons or talk to prisoners who have been in prison for multiple years.

People who profess a desire for prison reform are biased against ideas other than their own. Research bias is a problem in most scientific disciplines, and criminology is no exception. Many are biased or distracted by other grand issues they want solved before we think seriously about the underlying punishment of incarceration.

Incarceration has long been faulted for being hidden from the eyes of the people, harmful to the morals of prisoners and expensive. But cultural bias prevents us from crediting modern Muslim countries with valuable crime-control techniques. Historical ignorance and a secular bias limit our knowledge of similar punishments earlier in our own cultures.

Most prison reform advocates are biased by their own political beliefs. Many want the problem to be placed on the shoulders of racially and financially motivated oppressors. Gender bias is sometimes alleged, too, even though 93% of prisoners are male. For some, little can be done until America is free of educational, racial, class, access-to-justice, gender and wealth disparities. How smart is it to make a counter-productive punishment method fair? If the punishment method does not work very well for many offenders, placing offenders fairly in that concealed system does not make the method efficient.

When illegal drug use and crime rates rose, advocates of law and order, three-strikes laws and mandatory minimum sentencing appeared. The War on Drugs and "Willie Hortonization" of crime proved politically effective. Several decades later, the full enormous bill became due. Attacking the supply of illegal drugs did not work. Our prisons became overcrowded with the poor and uneducated, and an inordinate number of them were people of color. The huge financial and social costs of providing for 2.3 million largely unemployed prisoners finally caught our attention.

In conditions of confinement litigation, the U.S. Constitution provides the standard for cruel and unusual punishment. But when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were adopted, massive incarceration as we now know it did not exist. Back then, judicial corporal punishment was constitutional; it was approved of or utilized by all the presidents carved into Mt. Rushmore.

In Western civilization, incarceration is all we have known for several generations. As the death penalty declines, most of society is conditioned to think prison is the main punishment method, the only one that is powerful enough to stop serious crime. The criminal justice system is heavily focused on the single, inflexible, expensive and inexorable dimension of time. Some of those who work to improve prison conditions may have their own unconscious bias in favor of incarceration and against alternative punishments. Most people are shocked by the idea of judicial corporal punishment, which is invariably depicted as cruel, perverted or unjust in movies and TV.

Science proves that rehabilitation, restitution and deterrence are not often achieved by lengthy incarceration, but some violent offenders deserve their long prison sentences. Prisons will not be abolished.

We are nearly all influenced by some concept of social progress. Reformers are supposed to be "forward-looking." To believe in continual social progress is to ignore history. Society periodically degenerates into barbarism, ignorance, hatred, disorganization, bankruptcy, genocide, war and revolution. Scientific study of changed values sometimes takes decades before conclusions are reached and legislation enacted. Our belief in progress is accompanied by rejection of biblical principles in favor of unproven secular values.

We do not often enough look in the Bible for answers. If we did, the relatively simple solution to ending massive incarceration would be obvious: Deuteronomy 25:1-3. For use with perhaps half of the American correctional population, modern behavioral and neurological science can confirm the superior effectiveness of traditional judicial corporal punishment in achieving the goals of criminal punishment. Believe it or not, judicial corporal punishment was largely abolished in the U.S. because it was too effective. Judicial corporal punishment is less expensive, much faster and repeatable. Its last use in the U.S. was to deter and punish wife-beating without diminishing family income. In The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, Harvard law professor William J. Stuntz wrote, "Today's would-be reformers would do well to... consider the possibility that the best models for productive change may not come from contemporary legislation or court decisions, but from a past that has largely disappeared from our consciousness. Sometimes, the best road forward faces back."

Editor's note:

Corrections.com author John Dewar Gleissner, Esq. graduated from Auburn University (B.A. with Honor, 1973) and Vanderbilt University School of Law (1977), where he won the Editor's Award and participated in the Men's Penitentiary Project. In addition to practicing law in Alabama for the last 33 years, Mr. Gleissner isthe host of the Incarceration Reform Mega-Site blog http://incarcerationreform.blogspot.com/ and author of "Prison & Slavery - A Surprising Comparison", he is available for speaking engagements. Reprinted with permission - ezinearticles.com.

Other articles by Gleissner:


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