Dismantling the Punishment Industry
In "Is This the End of the War on Crime?" [July 5] Sasha Abramsky rightly gives credit to the Obama administration for shifting antidrug rhetoric away from the "war on drugs" metaphor and toward drug abuse as a public health problem. However, the Obama drug control budget, like Bush’s, still devotes nearly twice as many resources to supply-reduction strategies like arrest and incarceration as it does to demand-reduction strategies like treatment and prevention. As a thirty-four-year police veteran and Seattle’s chief of police from 1994 to 2000, I know that rhetorical shifts cannot solve the huge problems caused by a national policy of prohibition (versus legalized regulation). The president must end this "war on drugs" instead of merely saying he has (see CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com).
Las Cruces, N.M.
Sasha Abramsky is correct: these economic times are likely to spur penal reform, which is typically preceded by a sociopolitical crisis. For 200-plus years each US penal reform intended to diminish inhumane and unjust practices has resulted in widening the net of the punishment system. Also, benevolent penal reforms produce greater government intrusion into punished people’s lives and communities. Not only do they fail to dismantle existing practices and ideologies; they add new punitive dimensions. The outcome has been an ever expanding archipelago of punishments disproportionately targeting the poor, people of color and other marginalized groups.
This pattern includes the penitentiary itself, said to be the ultimate deterrent and the definitive crime fix but which became an intractable growth industry; the adult reformatory, designed to institutionalize treatment and "cure" the prisoner but which generated new "scientific" categories of offenders; and parole, intended to shorten prison sentences but which lengthened them while creating conditional, revocable "freedom" and a new layer of supervision and surveillance outside the prison walls.
There is no reason to expect "restorative justice" to unfold any differently from past penal reforms. Yet as Abramsky notes, it is compelling, and the time is ripe for a movement aimed at smashing an unjust punishment system. Change is possible.