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Lorber: Prisons

Vermont has a huge addiction problem. We’re addicted to prisons. We love them. And we love to think that they work - but they don’t.
Now, I’m willing to acknowledge that Vermont has one of the lowest prison rates in the U.S. But Vermont’s rate of using prisons is excessive by global standards. Our prison rate is more than twice Canada’s or Europe’s, three times Egypt’s, and five times Japan’s.

Vermont’s addiction to prisons cost $153 million this year, a record high. Next year will be more.

That might be a prudent investment, if prisons worked well. But for the most part, they don’t actually decrease crime rates. According to Vermont’s Department of Corrections, prison rates and crime rates are unrelated. The number of people you lock up has little or no effect on how safe your community is.

It seems counter-intuitive. But only about 5% of people who have committed crimes actually serve time behind bars. That’s right, prison bars come into play only once for every twenty crimes committed.

The reason is that after a crime is committed, first the police have to catch the guy (and yes, it’s usually a guy; men comprise over 90% of inmates). And after police find him, they have to have enough evidence to charge him. Then he has to lose his court case. And then the judge has to sentence him to prison. Finally, he has to actually serve, instead of being put on probation. So when all’s said and done, we end up locking up convicted criminals only 4% to 5% of the time.

Now a 5% chance of being locked up is still enough to scare many people into doing the right thing. But most people aren’t exactly making rational choices when they’re breaking the law. Most of them think they’re going to get away with it. Or they’re not even thinking about the consequences - because they’re too drunk, too angry, or too desperate when they’re committing the crime.

We can be outraged at criminal behavior. We can pass laws. We can increase policing. And we can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on prisons - which is what we do. We feed our addiction to prison. But it doesn’t make us safer.

I would say that the first step we need to take is to recognize that our current prison system generally doesn’t work. And the next step would be to invest more in prison alternatives that work better - and cost a whole lot less.