Save Our…Jails?

If someone developed a cure for cancer, we wouldn’t expect the folks who run hospitals to oppose it on the grounds that they’d have too many empty beds because there weren’t as many sick people. No, ordinary people would say “Hey, that’s great” and move on to other things. Sure, we’d absolutely feel bad for all of the hospital workers who are going to lose their jobs because hospitals will have fewer patients but that bad feeling would be outweighed by the joy ordinary people would feel over the cure for cancer.

Politicians, though, are not ordinary people, and they proved it recently in Pennsylvania when a state Senate committee advanced a bill that would make it harder for the state to close prisons because…


Because of the economic impact prison closings have on the communities in which the prisons are located.

Americans are, you may be aware, the most imprisoned people in the world:   666 people per 100,000 population, the world’s highest rate. El Salvador is second, at 614, and a few other countries of note are Mexico (169), France (102), Denmark (59), Japan (45), and Guinea Bissau (10, the lowest rate in the world).

Unless Americans are the worst people in the world this seems ridiculous, and a lot of Americans in recent years have come to see the foolishness of sending so many people to jail. There’s been a real criminal justice revolution in the past decade or so, led, interestingly enough, by conservatives and conservative clergy: conservatives because jails cost money and they don’t want to use tax money to imprison people and assume the really dangerous ones don’t live near them anyway, and conservative clergy because they’re starting to remember why they became clergy in the first place and have started showing compassion for people who have lost their way instead of demanding that every miscreant be sentenced to eternal damnation. Throughout the country, new approaches to dealing with law-breakers are being tested and the result has been the first decline in the incarceration rate in this country in, well, in the history of the country.

But some state legislators in Pennsylvania want to slow down the criminal justice reform train. In addition to seeking legislation to make it harder to close prisons, they also want to slow down criminal justice reform efforts because it’s those efforts that are cutting down on the number of people being sent to jail, which in turn is emptying out jails enough to make some of them unnecessary.

And members of Pennsylvania’s state legislature can’t have that: they want their prisons, they want jobs for their constituents as prison guards and prison clerks, and they want contracts for their political supporters supplying prisons with clothes, food, beds, supplies, medicine, and other things.

Or maybe they just want to be sure that when they finally get caught doing the kinds of things politicians sometimes get caught doing they’ll be sent to a place close enough to home that their family members will be able to visit them.

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