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The Prison Dilemma

Contemplating Prison Reform with Jim Webb

It's eleven-thirty on a Thursday morning in the Senate Hart building, and the House-Senate Joint Economic Committee is doing something fairly unprecedented: It's talking about prison reform. Not prison reform in the sense of why-we-need-to-build-more, but why-we-need-to-build-fewer. Curious as to how this came about--as a rule, Congress only gets "tough" on crime, never "soft"--I had asked a staffer, who explained that Chuck Schumer, the committee chair, was letting each member hold his or her own hearing on whatever topic they so desired. Senator Jim Webb, who had reported on the Japanese prison system as a journalist in the 1980s, had picked this critical issue. And so, for the past hour, five experts had put forward overwhelming evidence that the sprawling U.S. prison state--essentially a $200 billion per year social program that rivals the New Deal in size and scope--is devastating inner cities, deepening poverty, and making the crime problem worse, not better. But now it comes time for questions, and the congressional chairs are mostly empty. Only Webb and fellow freshman Bob Casey of Pennsylvania are still hanging around. Critical, indeed.

Back in 1958, sociologist Gresham Sykes prefaced his classic study of life inside a New Jersey maximum-security prison with a bitter note: "The 'prison problem' would seem to be a hardy perennial, unfortunately, for it has managed to survive every new storm of public indignation." Sykes was writing at a time when the U.S. prison system had only 200,000 inmates; his peers were mostly interested in what took place inside prisons. Today, after three decades of the war on drugs and harsh mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, that number has ballooned to 2.2 million, and social scientists are now focusing on how mass incarceration affects and shapes the outside world--how prisons become "engines of inequality," as Princeton sociologist Bruce Western puts it.

But will anyone listen? To be fair, Webb and Casey weren't the only members of Congress who showed up on Thursday. Four representatives had had to exit early for a House vote--three liberal Democrats, Carolyn Maloney, Bobby Scott, and Maurice Hinchey, as well as Phil English, a Republican who has expressed interest in prisoner-rehabilitation legislation. Sam Brownback had also swung by earlier, to voice support for programs that help prisoners reenter society. That was it, though. And, watching Webb and Casey sit there, alone, one couldn't help but wonder if the "prison problem" won't weather this latest storm of public indignation just as easily.

At the heart of the case against the bloated U.S. prison system are statistics--lots of them. Staffers at the hearing inundate reporters with sheet after sheet filled with numbers and charts. A sample: The United States incarcerates 750 inmates per 100,000 persons, besting even Russia and China and dwarfing the world average of 166 per 100,000. Prison spending is now the fastest-growing item on most state budgets. Some 62 percent of black high-school dropouts born since the late 1960s have a prison record by the age of 34. Said prison record lowers one's lifetime earnings by 10 to 30 percent. So what are we getting for this staggeringly expensive social experiment? Not much: Criminologists mostly agree that the increased use of prison was, at best, responsible for only 20-25 percent of the crime decline in the 1990s. And, given that prisons themselves can serve as a breeding ground for criminals, while ripping apart families and perpetuating racial and income inequality, it's no stretch to say that excessive incarceration can actually increase crime in some cases.

A barrage of stats, though, is no match for personal experience, and perhaps the most compelling witness is Pat Nolan, a former Republican lawmaker in California who served 29 months in federal custody after getting caught accepting bribes in an FBI sting. Like Chuck Colson, the Watergate crook who now runs a prison ministry, Nolan had his come-to-Jesus moment behind bars. And, in the course of making his case for programs to help prisoners reenter polite society, he dips into the memory well, asking his audience to imagine a released offender who has just stepped off the bus: "Where will he live? Where will he find a meal? Where will he look for a job? How will he get a job interview?" He notes that most prisons don't even give inmates an identification card upon release: "In Alabama, they give you a check for $50 but no I.D. How are you even supposed to cash the check?" Little wonder, he adds, that two-thirds of all prisoners are rearrested within three years of their release--a major reason why prisons keep swelling.

What can be changed? On the bright side, Congress is close to passing the Second Chance Act, a bill sponsored by politicians as diverse as Brownback and John Conyers that would provide $100 million to fund training and support programs for ex-prisoners. A Senate staffer told me that support for Brownback's bill on the Republican side is "nearly unanimous." In the past, Democrats have been wary that the GOP would try to fund faith-based prison programs with the bill, but this time around, it may well pass. Even if the bill itself is relatively modest, it does represent a break from three decades of increasingly strict sentencing laws, and an unerring faith that more prison is always the answer.

But what happens after that? During his testimony, Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown, takes a detour from discussing the social costs of mass imprisonment to broach drug laws. If prison reform has long been taboo in Congress, speaking out against the war on drugs is extra taboo. Loury goes ahead anyway and points to a graph showing that, even as drug arrests have skyrocketed, the price of heroin and cocaine has been plummeting, while emergency room admissions for drug use continue to rise. Loury also notes, strikingly, that black men are four times as likely to be arrested for a drug offense as white men, despite the fact that drug usage is actually lower for blacks. Part of this, he explains, comes from the fact that, in urban areas, drugs tend to be sold in open-air markets, whereas suburban drug sales tend to take place indoors.

Webb is impressed by this point, but Casey raises a "devil's advocate" question: Why shouldn't the police lock up people selling drugs in public? Michael Jacobson, a former New York city corrections commissioner, chimes in to explain that "it's not appropriate to use jails for every behavior," arguing that putting a street-level dealer in prison for a few years won't solve anything--someone else will just step in to sell, and prison will only "harden" the person arrested. All of the experts agree with Loury that mandatory minimums for drug offenses do more harm than good, and other, less punitive measures would work better. But Casey, though appreciative, seems vaguely discomfited by where this is all heading, muttering, "I like the focus on reentry programs."

For his part, Webb doesn't seem to mind rolling up his sleeves and going beyond talk of chipping away at the recidivism rate. His questions are sharp, as when he asks whether lengthening prison sentences actually deters crime. Both Western and Jacobson agree that the length of a prison sentence is less important for deterrence than the swiftness of apprehension. "Right," Webb replies, almost as if leading a class discussion, "criminals mostly just worry about getting caught." Jacobson adds that the rise of unduly long prison terms--especially the explosion in life sentences handed out under "three-strikes" laws--keeps people in prison long past the age at which they tend to commit crimes. (Bruce Western quips that the United States is the only place where "prison gerontologist" is a career.) To this, too, Webb seems receptive.

Reentry programs are one thing; talk of drastically reducing prison sentences, however, is still a radical notion for Congress. To his credit, Barack Obama recently vowed, in a speech at Howard University, that he would "review mandatory minimum drug sentencing" as president. That's about as far as any mainstream candidate can go, and Obama, perhaps wisely, kept the details vague. Webb, however, could be a convincing crusader here--after all, it's hard to accuse a man who once tried to bring a gun into the Senate of being a typical bleeding-heart liberal. Indeed, Webb emphasizes several times that he's not soft on crime, and, as if to prove it, reiterates his desire to "break the backs of gangs" and so forth. "But," he adds at the end, "I do hope my colleagues can better understand the impact of what we're doing here." By the time he says this, though, he's the only politician left in the room.