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Redeem the prison generation

Treating prisoners like toxic social waste isn't working. Here's a better way.

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They're the least popular constituency in America. People we'd rather forget. Last year, a record 1 in every 100 American adults was in prison. One in every 30 men aged 20 to 34. And among black males in that age group? One in 9. Why?

Because America's crime and punishment policies reflect an incoherent mix of motives: justice, retribution, vengeance, the illusion of expedience, the cruel bigotry of nonexistent expectations. And absent decent job training, counseling, and re-entry programs, the system only incites violence and invites recidivism.

It's past time to reconsider our approach to prisons, for practical reasons – and because it seriously undermines our effectiveness as a society and our moral authority with other nations.

With just 5 percent of the world's population, we cage almost a quarter of the world's prisoners – a trend that has accelerated wildly since the 1970s. If the 2.3 million Americans now behind bars joined the 5 million on parole or probation to form a city of their own, you'd have a population nearly twice that of Los Angeles. Feeling safer yet?

You shouldn't. The last decade's legendary drop in crime may be providing a false sense of security. Applying the murder rate as an index for overall crime, William J. Stuntz of Harvard Law School notes that advances in emergency medicine mean that one-fourth of victims now survive murder attempts that would have been fatal in the halcyon 1950s. Adjust for that factor, he says, and "a clear picture emerges: Outside the South, American cities are at least several times more violent than they were in the mid-20th century."

With exceptions (since justice is imperfect), inmates aren't innocents, of course. They all had victims, directly or indirectly. And many are plea bargainers suspected of more serious crimes that couldn't be proved in court. We're certainly right to err on the side of safety with violent offenders, drug and human traffickers, rapists, anyone guilty of child molestation – where there is no basis for trust and no room for error.

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