In the democracies of the West, we enshrine our doctrines, laws and political processes with the facade of liberty and freedom. This enables economies and criminal justice systems to function under the principle that people in democracies are free to flourish or falter. And crucially, this is a reflection of the virtues, merits (or lack thereof) and characteristics of individuals themselves. This is one of the western societies fundamental dilemmas; the dilemma of moral responsibility and criminal culpability. Is it a reflection of the individual actor within a society, when they stray from the careful confines of law, ethics and political correctness, or is it more a reflection of the society that created the individual in the first place? This may seem to some an elementary ethical dilemma. But when we apply this dilemma to our own communities and personal experiences, our unwavering commitment to individualism and moral responsibility has ramifications for how we judge, treat and condemn other individuals.
The criminal justice system in the US epitomises this ruthless individualism that leads to impulsive judgements and unnecessary incarceration of primarily those at the bottom of society. The guise of personal liberty and equality in the US acts as nothing more than an illusion that facilitates marginalisation and dehumanisation of working class Americans, but particularly of African Americans. This commitment to individualism has limited Americans, rich and poor, from developing a capacity for tolerance and empathy. But staying committed to the ideals that drive this article, who can blame them for responding in this way to their political environment?
They are a product of a society that allows its criminal justice system to totally neglect the need for psychological profiling when condemning someone to prison. To cut and fracture mental health services, educational platforms and employment preparation within prisons. This prevents any true reform or rehabilitation for those detained. According to several sources, over 50% of the US prison population has developed some form of mental illness. Another source claims between 70 and 90% are unemployed and over 50% are functionally illiterate when they are released from prison. Therefore, it seems no surprise that the current recidivism rate in the US is around 76%. This stands in stark contrast to countries with a commitment to reforming criminals like Norway, where recidivism rates are around 20%.
The illusion of criminal responsibility works as a tool for legitimisation that nullifies the need for reform to the justice system. Not only do prisons adhere to a failing culture of punitive deterrence, but many prisons are now run for profit, exposing the rate of incarceration to corporate competition. Astonishingly, the 13th amendment, to this day, permits ‘involuntary servitude’ for inmates of the prison system in America. On the outside, this ruthless individualism legitimises the gross underfunding in education, infrastructure and employment opportunities in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country, preventing any true social mobilisation and laying the foundations for moral deviancy and criminality.
The war on drugs waged by Richard Nixon in 1971 and upheld by the successive premierships of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton saw the promotion of prison for profit, much maligned minimum mandatory sentences, a shocking rise in police brutality, the predatory plea bargain and an exponential increase in the prison population. In the US in 1970 there were 327,000 people incarcerated. In 2017, there are 2.3 million people in prisons – this is the highest rate of incarceration in the world. And what should be predictable is that this population is composed of the very poorest in US society. Those who did not complete high school, those with mental health issues, susceptibility to drug addiction and those belonging to ethnic minorities. Of course, a significant component of this dilemma is that of race. By many estimations, a young black male born in the US has a one in three chance of being incarcerated during his life time compared to a one in seventeen percent chance for white males. There is no denying that negative racial stereotypes are endemic to American society and have infiltrated its police forces.
This is the criminal responsibility dilemma perfectly illustrated. We are told vociferously that black and working class people are detained because they incorrectly used their liberty and free will and they willingly submitted themselves to crime. Therefore, they are themselves personally responsible for their imprisonment. Yet, would it not be more democratic and logical to rigorously assess the conditions and the environment that created criminals in the first place. And not accept as self-evident that these are evil, bad and immoral people who deserve to be denied their civil liberties. For in many cases, they had limited civil liberties in the first place.
Crime is borne out of necessity. Working class and black communities are poorer, have inferior schooling, are without infrastructures such as community centres and sports facilities and therefore are more susceptible to criminality and drug use. The average yearly earning for male offenders before incarceration is around $19,660 when the yearly earnings for the average American is closer to $50,000. Regarding the more imperceptible details, with the chances of positive influence, valued employment, and security in one’s own community greatly diminished, the path to crime becomes increasingly likely.
The dogmatic belief in moral responsibility has played a part in the desertion of the process of reforming criminals. Cognitive behavioural therapy is a method that can reduce recidivism between 10% and 30% and costs very little to implement, but is rarely used in the US. The costs of incarceration compared to reform is huge. In the US, the cost of incarceration is 8 times as much as probation. One source claims that it costs nearly a $1 trillion to operate federal and state prisons when considering the social cost as well.
Modern liberal democracies, their class systems and their racist structures, are sustained by the illusion of personal liberty. Whilst politicians proclaim equal opportunities for all in rhetoric, this does not then materialise in practice. The truth is that to view society, crime and deviance through a simple, pragmatic lens, is convenient politically. Not more economical, however. It is proven that it is more cost-effective to reform prisoners than having them re-offend. To accept that those who commit crimes are morally responsible disregards the myriad of social determinants that made crime an unavoidable prospect. But to admit to structural and institutional racism and classism is a reality that would destabilise western justice systems and for that reason, it is a reality that must, therefore, remain obfuscated.
By Felix Nobes