Treating prisoners,
Like a curse;
One sure way,
To make them worse.

It seemed like a great idea at the time—not letting prisoners vote. That avoided political retribution, especially in states where sheriffs are elected rather than appointed. It also meant that legislatures could freely treat inmates like dirt while shrewdly filling up jails with marginal black or poor offenders to get them out of the voting booth.

For a long time this was a win-win situation. California and New York lawmakers were especially “tough on crime,” while Southerners were especially “tough on blacks.” Eventually, many politicians found it useful to be tough on both. And later on, they added Latinos. Many an election went to the ”toughest” and plenty of candidates enjoyed those “purified” voter lists.

Then came the Great Recession. Suddenly, America’s bloated prisons became an incumbent’s nightmare. “Who can we let go without getting tagged as ‘soft on crime?'” “Which prisons can we close without getting beat up by the jailers union?” “What services can we cut without firing up the ACLU?” “Is it cheaper to privatize?”

Less frequent, unfortunately, is the question, “Who are we holding that we shouldn’t?” But that one is at last occasionally being heard. New York has finally repealed most of its so-called Rockefeller Drug Laws, synonymous with the modern definition of “draconian.” And it has tardily dawned on California that parole is cheaper than incarceration. Also that perhaps while “three strikes and you’re out” may be a delightful political concept, the state can no longer afford it. Arizona, conversely, isn’t thinking much beyond hiring a private prison contractor.

It looks like locking people up is a hard habit to break. The American prison population quadrupled in just the last 25 years. We’ve even surpassed China and Russia in the percentage of citizens in the clink. Meanwhile the rest of the world just scratches its head. “What are those crazy Americans up to now? Their country isn’t crime-ridden.”

True, but we do loathe coddling. No matter to us that recidivism seems to slacken when treated with education, health care, decent food, easy visitation, periodic release time, halfway houses, generous parole, libraries, and other elements of civilization. Rather we see ourselves as “tough but fair,” and in our heroic imagination we somehow connect our harsh behavior back to the glory days of the rough-and-ready frontier.

Nor should we forget the special case of illegal drugs. We’re at our most draconian when punishing the cultivation, sale and possession of those products that ironically were legal 50 years ago. We still cling to this stance even while much of the world is now pulling back, legalizing and regulating them, treating addicts, reducing crime, improving health and closing prisons.

Maybe the discipline of shrunken budgets will actually cause us to rethink our basic incarceration policies rather than just continuing to prospect for more line items to cut. Or maybe not. America is not steeped in learning lessons from the rest of the world. They are, after all, just foreigners.

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William A. CollinsBy

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.