Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Eyes on the panopticon

The economist has a piece on our incarceration rate. Either that or they just published a press release by Senator Webb under their own byline. So... what's the problem here?

Well, there's the failure of the war on drugs, that's an obvious one.

Perhaps less obvious is mental health. I don't know the first thing about the public or private provisions for mental health in the US. It appears to me though that far too many of the mentally ill have fallen through the cracks. If they're in prison, or homeless in the streets, or employed by Fox News... well, that's not doing any good for anyone.

Anyone else have a theory? Does the US of A just have more criminals? Are our cops just better at catching the ones we've got? Do we hand out longer sentences? What's going on here?


sbeath said...

Other theories:

You might also look at mandatory minimums and three-strike laws.

Also, at least some other countries do have much lighter sentences. There was a recent scandal in Sweden when a convicted murderer was admitted to medical school after serving less than seven years.

sbeath said...

The date that the Economist uses for our low incarceration rate starting point, IIRC, is just before massive de-institutionalization under Reagan, where many people being held unfairly against their will in psychiatric institutions were released and much of the psychiatric support system was dismantled and de-funded. (You can also see a sharp rise in the homeless population around the same time.)

Over the past year or so, the NYTimes has run a couple articles documenting how inadequate our support system is. It's not just that health insurance (badly regulated as it is due to ERISA) generally doesn't cover enough mental health services--it's also that there is simply not the supply of doctors et cetera to meet the mental illness demands in this country.

Unfortunately, it appears politically easier to fund prisons for criminals than to fund social programs (like mental health services) that could prevent people from becoming criminals.