Feeling safe is great.
Ask anybody with PTSD – feeling unsafe is the pits. A perception of danger elevates cortisol, wears the body out, and makes it hard to sleep, hard to think, hard to remember anything.
And – properly wielded – state violence is the best way to keep people safe. Of course, the term “state violence” means different things to different people. I’m not talking about police officers murdering innocent people, which has led many to experience way more stress, their hearts racing whenever a patrol car is spotted down the street.
I’m only fond of state violence that protects. We Homo sapiens have a long evolutionary history as a violent species, and state violence at its best prevents violence from individuals. This is the basic idea behind Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan.
A good practical example is the state violence that facilitated the civil rights march from Selma. The town was full of murderous individuals. Only the presence of armed federal soldiers – a clear imposition of state violence – prevented the far worse, anarchic violence that would’ve been perpetrated by locals.
At its worst, though, state violence is horrific. You get wanton destruction of life and liberty on a massive scale. Which is grim to think about, given that my own country is now helmed by a fickle racist who celebrates his own acts of violence against women.
Violence from a bad state isn’t keeping anybody safe.
Consider mass incarceration as currently practiced by the United States. Forcibly locking someone inside a prison or jail is a clear exercise of violence. In some cases, this violence keeps us safe. For instance, my mother-in-law was murdered last year. The man who killed her should be kept away from society so that he doesn’t hurt anyone else until he’s better. The brutality of this incident leads me to suspect he has some serious emotional disturbances at the moment.
But this dude has been shut inside various prisons for over nine years already… after convictions for non-violent drug crimes. When the state locked him away for all those years, were we the people made safer?
In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil proffers a reason for doubt:
What’s more, for supposedly scientific systems, the recidivism models are logically flawed. The unquestioned assumption is that locking away “high-risk” prisoners for more time makes society safer. It is true, of course, that prisoners don’t commit crimes against society while behind bars. But is it possible that their time in prison has an effect on their behavior once they step out? Is there a chance that years in a brutal environment surrounded by felons might make them more likely, and not less, to commit another crime?
Yes, I’d say there’s a chance. I doubt many people would disagree. Even those responsible for locking dudes in prison sometimes acknowledge that they’re doing the wrong thing.
While C. J. Chivers was researching his New York Times Magazine article about Sam Siatta, a marine who returned from Afghanistan with severe PTSD and no support, Chivers met with Jason Chambers, the prosecuting attorney whose office sent Siatta to prison. (After returning from the war, Siatta tumbled into alcoholism, and one night broke down a stranger’s door while stumbling home drunk from a party.) Many thought Siatta should be offered treatment instead of prison, but the prosecutors were unyielding. Siatta was socked with a six-year sentence.
Until, that is, Chivers arrived. Once Chambers learned that a reporter was investigating the case, he promptly offered to vacate the conviction. Siatta was released that week.
From Chivers’s article:
There was a question to explore: Why did Chambers propose exactly the resolution to the case that his office had resisted for two years?
Chambers described a criminal-justice system that resembled an overworked mill. His office handles almost 5,000 cases a year, he said, and it was not possible for him to follow each of them closely …
From his point of view, Chambers said, the plea deal in the works was not actually a large shift. Siatta had received the minimum sentence for a Class-X felony and would soon plead to more than the minimum sentence for a felony one class down. “From a practical standpoint, it is a big change,” he said, because Siatta was out of prison. “From a legal standpoint, it is a hair’s width apart.”
And for society, Chambers added, the new arrangement was probably safer. If Siatta were to behave well in Shawnee [prison], he would be eligible for release in less than three years and would return with virtually no counseling or care for his PTSD. Now Siatta would be under state supervision for several years, receiving care throughout. “The rationale for me became, ‘What makes people safer over the long term?’ “ he said. “Is it treatment or just getting him off the street?”
Chambers is almost certainly correct: we the people will be safer if Siatta is given treatment instead of more time in prison.
Of course, our jails and prisons are so flawed that the same is probably true of most everyone sent away.
There’s even data showing how much less safe incarceration makes us. Individual prosecutors and judges have an inordinate amount of discretion, and defendants are randomly distributed among them… which means we’ve inadvertently conducted something like a controlled study. When a dude is busted for possession, he might land the judge who’s hard on theft but soft on drug crimes, in which case he’ll walk. Or he might land the judge who comes down hard on drugs and get four years in prison.
It’s absurd that a coinflip decision – which judge you’re assigned to – is the only difference between four years and freedom. From the perspective of justice, this is a nightmare. But from the standpoint of science, it’s great! Who doesn’t love controlled studies? Equivalent people are being assigned to receive either prison time or freedom, basically at random, which lets us compare how they fare afterward.
When Michael Mueller-Smith combed through the data for over a million defendants, he found that locking people up increases the likelihood that people will need expensive government services after release and increases the likelihood that people will commit future crimes.
It seems quite likely that the choices made by New York state prosecutors – locking a then-harmless poor dude away for a decade – led to my mother-in-law’s death.
And yet. I’ve been trying not to end these essays on a dour note. I certainly don’t mean to imply that everyone who spends time in prison becomes somehow tainted. So I’d like to close with advice from James Trent, whose lovely personal essay “A Visit from an Outsider” recently appeared in The New Yorker.
Despite being labeled with scorn by our criminal justice system and shunted away for decades on end, Trent resolved that even in prison he would do and be his best. He knows he’s made a positive impact on people’s lives during his time there. And he advises we do the same:
… when you have a bad situation occur in life you can choose to become bitter or better. Choose to be better!