A cage is a cage is a cage.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

A Better Plan for Better Prisons

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Last week, Mark Kleiman, Angela Hawken and Ross Halperin proposed a plan to actually do something about de-incarceration -- not baby steps, but a program that would allow us to empty many of the nation's jail cells in favor of a tightly supervised release program that would be cheaper and more humane than sticking people in a cage for years on end.

This week, Leon Neyfakh ran a piece in Slate summing up the negative reaction to the plan -- not from people who said "To hell with them, they belong in cages," but for people who advocate de-incarceration. This reaction is, well, a tad surprising.

"At least when you’re in prison, you know you’re in prison,” Marie Gottschalk of the University of Pennsylvania told Neyfakh. “You’re telling people to experience freedom without really giving it to them, and you’re creating a system that’s not respectful of citizenship, that’s not respectful of dignity, and in many ways, I think, is setting people up to fail. ... Some of the worst bars are the ones that people acutely experience but are invisible to the rest of the world.”

Activist Glenn Martin reasonably worries that kindler, gentler, cheaper supervision will eventually enable us to supervise even more people under the criminal justice system. But he also said this:

"If Mark Kleiman thinks that prisons are bad places, then why doesn’t Mark Kleiman take on prisons, instead of building prisons in the community?” Martin said. “It’s insulting. It’s like saying, ‘Let’s get rid of slavery but let’s find another way to keep these people under control.’"

Neyfakh suggests that the people on the left he talked to don't want kinder, gentler punishments for people who commit crimes; they want us to "to stop seeing punishment as the correct response to crime, and focus instead on improving the wretched social conditions that cause people to get in trouble in the first place. Settling for anything short of that kind of radical rethinking of criminal justice amounts to 'tinkering,' the argument goes, and should be seen not as progress but capitulation to the underlying logic of the prison system as we’ve known it."

They are talking, in short, as if the alternative to supervised release is not putting people in jail at all. But as I wrote a while back, most people are in prison for things that most Americans consider to be serious crimes: burglary, rape, assault, armed robbery and so forth. You may think that these things are less the responsibility of individual criminals than of a racist society that leaves the poor mired in misery. But regardless of where you place the responsibility, we should all be able to agree on a fact: Politically, any policy that requires for its success that middle-class Americans decide that they themselves bear the primary fault for armed robbery is not a policy with bright prospects. Right or wrong, America feels that it tried the "root cause" approach in the 1960s, and the result was a decades-long crime wave.

That's why the reaction from some on the left seems so mystifying to me. They seem to be making some version of the old "heighten the contradictions" argument you used to hear from radicals and Marxists -- that we should actually want things to be as bad as possible, in order to accelerate the arrival of the glorious revolution. But, of course, you run the risk that the revolution will not arrive on schedule, leaving even more people in misery. 

All policy analysts often face an unfortunate choice between "first best" and "second best" -- or, for that matter, "eighth best" -- programs. They face this choice because "first best" is often politically impossible. For example, many, maybe most, health-care experts think that the American linkage between health insurance and employment is moronic. The experts in the Barack Obama administration certainly thought so, and they wanted to sever that link. But they were also aware that simply removing the tax subsidy for employer-sponsored health benefits outright would trigger an immediate and powerful backlash that would pretty much make it impossible to pass their health-care bill. So they instead went with the opaque and cumbersome "Cadillac tax," which didn't get rid of the tax subsidy but at least made it more expensive to offer your employees extremely generous health insurance benefits -- and thereby, they hoped, would encourage employers to put the clamps on cost increases, and maybe shift some of their employees onto the exchanges.

We have a similar problem here. Left-wing advocates may well believe that America's incarceration rate is primarily a result of racism and insufficient funding of social services, and that social justice requires we simply free all but the most heinous violent offenders. But any politician who stated this, and proceeded to follow through, would rapidly find themselves out of office. Given that political reality, what Kleiman et al. propose seems as if it is obviously superior to the status quo. It may be eighth-best, but it's still way better than what we have now.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net