Thursday, October 6, 2011

Response to Comments

Comments from Trevor:

I agree that the logic of this argument is very strong, and it seems to me that the same argument applies to the morality of punishment.

and the link posted by Stuart Buck seemed to share a common theme. In the link, the authors argue that:

According to data provided by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, in 1977, parolees who were returned to prison or convicted of new crimes accounted for just 10% of California’s prison population. The percentage topped 20 only once prior to 1980. In 2009, however, the number was an alarming 77%, having held firm between the high 60s and low 80s since 1986.

I think that there is a real point here: vindictiveness is expensive. The previous focus in California prisons on rehabilitation and returning prisoners to society was based around minimizing losses of social capital. This is not to excuse the crimes (as most criminal activity is either selfish, mean or petty), but to point out that a focus on punishment is expensive and not especially good for the prisoners themselves. Clearly something was going right if only 10% of prisoners were coming back into prison. A return rate of 77% might actually indicate that we are simultaneously less safe and making life worse for the imprisoned.

Now, we can always find single examples of people who should never be released. Serial killers with psychiatric issues come immediately to mind. But we should not let the extreme example determine the policy for the median prisoner. Similarly, we have a 100% chance that at least one person on parole will re-offend. That would be true even if the crime rate in the parolees was less than that in the general population.

This is a hard issue. I have strong and irrational feelings of fear about many convicts. But the focus on punishment over rehabilitation may well have been a mistake.

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