Should we Start Coddling Criminals?

I was first elected to the legislature during the height of the “tough on crime” craze in American politics. Unfortunately, I was not elected during the “Lets pay legislators a shit-ton of money!” craze, but that’s my bad timing.

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Whenever I ran for office as a Democrat, my Republican opponent would point out that not only was I a Communist who hates God (goes without saying), but I was also “soft on crime”. “Why does Daylin Leach Love Burglars so much?” (I never said they were subtle). In office, I saw maybe 500 co-sponsorship memos over the years proposing to increase the penalties for crimes. I don’t believe I ever saw any proposing to reduce a penalty. There was rarely any empirical data supporting these increases. People just wanted to look “tough”.

Every couple of weeks, a Senator would come into caucus touting his or her new bill to, for example, send grave robbers (a personal favorite crime of mine) to prison for three years instead of two. “Do we have a grave robbing crisis?” I would ask (we did not). “Has some other state drastically cut it’s rate of grave robbing by enacting similarly tough penalties?” (Usually, it had not). But these bills easily passed. It was almost impossible to vote against them because who wants to look soft on grave robbing?

That same dynamic led to a spate of mandatory minimum sentences, restrictions on parole, and numerous attempts to make prison “less pleasant” or, as one senator put it, “less of a resort”. I don’t know what kind of resorts he vacations at, but he should really read Zagat’s a bit more closely.

The theory of course is that the worse we treated criminals, the more incentive they would have to avoid coming back to prison and would thus commit fewer crimes. There was a logic to it. The problem was that it just didn’t work. States with the most onerous prisons had the highest recidivism rates. It seemed that the worse we treated prisoners and the longer we incarcerated them, the meaner and more prone to break the law they became.

To me, this unfortunate cycle is predictable. I’m not justifying or condoning any crime (except, as I already mentioned, grave robbing. Because…why not?). But it’s just a fact that many people who commit crimes have had difficult upbringings where they were treated badly. So we arrest them, treat them badly some more, and then release them expecting them to be fundamentally changed. Instead, they emerged from incarceration often angrier and better trained criminals.

There is another way.

Bastoy prison is a detention facility in Norway. They take the opposite approach to most of the prisons in America. They treat their prisoners well. Really well. The inmates live in cottages (I’m not sure if it’s the kind of cottage where cheese is made). They eat food prepared by a professional chef, and have access to tennis courts, a sauna, horseback riding and each inmate has a flat-screen TV where they can watch their favorite show “Say Yes to the Dress” (I’m guessing) to their heart’s content. The guards and the prisoners have a friendly relationship, the inmates have lots of free time and plenty of access to counseling and vocational training if they need it.

I know what you are thinking. “Why would we want to coddle criminals like that!”. I’ve heard all of the arguments. “Hard working citizens who don’t commit crimes often don’t live this well”, and, “people will just commit more crimes so they can live in luxury on the state dime!” These are not frivolous arguments. But there are a few things I think we ought to consider.

The average recidivism rate in the United States five years after release is just under 75%. What is the recidivism rate at Bastoy? 17.5%. In other words, released American prisoners commit new crimes at quadruple the rate of those released from Bastoy. And keep in mind, Bastoy is not filled with people who committed minor crimes, such as shoplifting, or folding, spindling or mutilating mattress tags, or even grave robbing (why is that even a crime?!). Bastoy houses people convicted of armed-robbery, aggravated assault, and other major felonies.

The theory is the opposite of the American theory of harsh punishment leading to change. The folks at Bastoy believe that it is only by breaking, not perpetuating, the cycle of mistreatment that change can happen. Or, as their warden said:

“For prisoners, there will never be a prison that is tough, or hard, enough. They need another type of help — support to deal with the experience, rather than the government simply punishing the offender in a way that does very little to help heal their wounds.”

Returning to the “they don’t deserve it” argument, I can’t disagree. They don’t. But what I would ask you to consider is what is the purpose of punishment? Is it to “get even” with the offender? Or is it to make the offender a better, safer, more productive citizen going forward? Do we want sadder prisoners, or do we want safer streets? I know what my answer is.

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