The Prisoners Dilemma The Prisoners Dilemma

The Prisoners Dilemma

by Andrew Price

August 22, 2009
Nicholas Kristoff presents an interesting perspective check in his column today, asking why so much money is spent incarcerating shoplifters for life under 3-strikes laws when we could be spending that money on health care:Astonishingly, many politicians seem to think that we should lead the world in prisons, not in health care or education. The United States is anomalous among industrialized countries in the high proportion of people we incarcerate; likewise, we stand out in the high proportion of people who have no medical care-and partly as a result, our health care outcomes such as life expectancy and infant mortality are unusually poor.It's time for a fundamental re-evaluation of the criminal justice system... so that we're no longer squandering money that would be far better spent on education or health.He's entirely right about the need to re-evaluate the criminal justice system. Our astronomical incarceration rates, born of the crazy minimum sentencing spree in the 1970s, are a financial liability and recidivism rates are still high.I don't know if there are a lot of politicians who really espouse a "more prisons; fewer hospitals" platform. But two big problems Kristoff doesn't mention are the trend towards prison privatization, which creates lobbying muscle for longer sentences, and the psychological fact that Americans seem to always want longer sentences for people regardless of how high sentences already are. Those two things combined make it really hard to ratchet down sentences or focus more on reform and rehabilitation, which don't make money or feel appropriately punitive.
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The Prisoners Dilemma