No one should be surprised by the continuing debacle at the D.C. Jail. It is but the latest local example of a widespread national crisis brought about by talk-tough politicians elected on "throw-away-the- key" campaign platforms. That glib rhetoric has so burdened an already unwieldy criminal justice system that the entire structure is sinking under its own weight.
Nearly every state in our country has a prison overcrowding problem like Washington's. The public has been accepting--and as of late demanding--"law and order" measures that are in reality based on myths.
Myth No. 1: Prisons rehabilitate criminals and make them more fit for reentry to society.
They don't. Seventy-four percent of those released from prison are rearrested within four years--often for more serious offenses. When offenders are jammed into overcrowded prisons and jails, we should not be surprised that they come out "debilitated" by the experience.
Myth No. 2: Prisons are necessary to deter crime.
As the overwhelming majority of criminologists agree, it is the fear of swift and certain punishment, rather than the severity of punishment--such as long prison terms--that most effectively deters crime. In many cases, when the number of crimes punishable by incarceration and the length of sentences increase, the incidence of crime has actually risen as well.
Myth No. 3: The only real punishment is prison.
Not true. Criminal offenders must be punished, of course, but there is a whole array of punishments other than imprisonment. And many are far more appropriate for nonviolent offenders--who make up approximately 50 percent of the national prison population. These people are not only jamming the prisons far beyond capacity; they're undergoing an often violent experience that can make them far more likely to commit violent crime when they get out. And their imprisonment is costing the taxpayers of our nation an average of $15,000 a year.
For these nonviolent offenders there is a better punishment. Through restitution, offenders can pay their debt by reimbursing crime victims for property loss or personal damages. Through community service, offenders restore the damage they have done by volunteering to work for charitable agencies.
These methods not only benefit the victims and society as a whole, but are restorative to offenders, who avoid the criminal breeding grounds of prison. Taxpayers also stand to gain: these punishments, operated under probation, are 10 percent of the cost of imprisonment; halfway house arrangements are only one-third the cost.
Myth No. 4: The solution to prison overcrowding is to build more prisons.
It costs an average of $50,000 per bed to construct a medium-security prison. It would cost at least $45 million to provide for the current overcrowding in D.C. Jail. And even the casual observer realizes that if construction of an institution to handle overflow at a place like the D.C. Jail were started today, when finished in three years it would already be overcrowded. Building more prisons is a Band-Aid solution to a deep, festering wound. And a very expensive one at that.
Until we honestly face and reject these myths, the problems at the D.C. Jail--and the travesty of the overtaxed American penal system--will continue. And we will be the losers.