The prisoner dilemma

The US is currently best in the world at incarcerating people. By a pretty wide margin. About 5 times as many people in prison as England, 7 times more than China and more than 10 times as many as Norway.

Assuming people agree that this is a problem, what can or should be done about it?

Well, part of the problem is too many laws. Practically every American commits a few felonies a day without knowing it. This is even more likely if they are currently working. All kinds of regulations you probably unknowingly violate on a daily basis. Everyone should read the book Three Felonies a Day. If the government wants to get you, they’ll get you for something, because you’ve done something.

Another problem is prison for nonviolent offenders. We need to decide what prison is for: is it for rehabilitation? For punishment? Or it is to keep society safe from predators? Right now, it’s all of those things, and none of those things. Depends on your crime. With white collar criminals, it’s almost always about retribution. White collar criminals have a low recidivism rate, and as long as they are no longer allowed to practice the career that originally got them in trouble, are no longer any threat to society whatsoever. So it’s pure revenge. With rapists and murderers, it’s about protecting society. With most other offenders, it’s about rehabilitiation. In theory.

I say prison should be reserved for violent offenders. Alternative punishments should be devised for the Bernie Madoffs and drug offenders, tax evaders and pickpockets. From a simple humanitarian perspective, it makes no sense to place nonviolent offenders in cages with animals who take joy in sadism.

Surely discouraging others is part of it. Knowing you’ll get locked away for 10 years if caught has to be a factor in discouraging crime.

Obviously we should stop people committing crimes. The question is how we do that without prison to deter them. Better education is often touted as a solution, but there’s little evidence that it works in reality because the groups most prone to imprisonment are also the pnes least prone ot take advantage of education.

We could just not lock up criminals, but I’m not sure most Americans would appreciate a return to 1970s level crime rates.

So we’re left with finding an alternative to imprisonment. We’ve been looking fr 200 years now. Good luck finding it.

House arrest? Parole? Seems like you can take a lot of freedom away from people before you have to house them and feed them on the government’s dime.

So you think that keeping people in prison reduces crime levels in general?

**So you think that keeping people in prison reduces crime levels in general? **

I’d say that’s obvious. One less criminal on the streets means at the very least one less crime. With some criminals, it prevents dozens of violent crimes.

We should de-criminalize recreational drugs.



Can you give us a breakdown of what the incarceration rates are for different types of crimes for those countries? Per my reply to CP, my guess is that we’re putting lots of druggies in jail.

BTW, I don’t think it makes sense to compare the US to China, which is still largely a 3rd world country. Let’s stick to Western Europe and Canada for the first cut.

And not just drug users. Our prisons are full of drug users, drug dealers, drug smugglers and people who committed crimes to get money to do all of the above or control the illegal businesses.

We need to provide free or inexpensive recreational drugs to those who want to use them along with counseling and treatment to help addicts control their use or use more safely. Another thread, perhaps.

The toll the “war on drugs” is taking on our population–and it’s a disproportionate toll on young black men who have already been given the short end of stick by losing the lottery on the circumstances into which one is born–is unconscionable.

It’s not obvious to me actually.

  1. If you put a McDonalds worker in prison, I’m thinking that won’t affect the number of people working at McDonalds, they’ll just hire a new one.

  2. A bad prison is a University of Crime. If you send a low level criminal to jail, a few years later you will have a high level criminal with a degree.

  3. Prisons soak up tax money which could otherwise be used to prevent crime. Which will reduce crimes most: A billion dollars spent on prisons, or a billion dollars spent on teachers, healt care, tax cuts, food stamps or drug rehabilitation? A dollar spent on one thing is a dollar not spent on another.

  4. The US has more prisoners than ANY OTHER COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. And harsher punishments than most. Yet still has the highest crime rate of all comparable countries. They also spend more money on the “War against Drugs” than anyone, yet still has more drug use than most countries. Sumthin aint workin. If it gets worse when you scratch, scratch harder?

A few felonies a day? Cite please, or at least some examples of felonies that one can unknowingly commit. Going 2 mph over the speed limit is not a felony, and that’s about the only thing I think I’m guilty of on a normal day.

A few felonies a day? Cite please, or at least some examples of felonies that one can unknowingly commit. Going 2 mph over the speed limit is not a felony, and that’s about the only thing I think I’m guilty of on a normal day.
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My only cite is the book “Three Felonies a Day”. He did say you are more likely to commit felonies unknowingly in the workplace than in your home life.

BTW, don’t have any garage sales. Books and toys have to be tested for lead. Failure to do so will result in very bad things happening to you.

Anyway, my point is that we have too many laws. Every time a new law is passed, new criminals are created who were otherwise law-abiding. An individual mandate in health insurance will result in all kinds of new prisoners for the system.


Points 2 - 4 have merit, but this argument doesn’t stand up. It’s not as if there is a marketplace of potential criminals just waiting for the opportunity to be “hired”. McDonalds hires a fixed number of people because there is a set number of restaurants with a set number of jobs. Not everyone can become a McDonalds employee (simultaneously).

The opportunity for crime, however, is almost infinite. If someone wants to commit a crime, they can do. They do not have to wait for opportunity to be created by existing criminals being locked up.

I’d like an example of one felony someone might unknowingly commit in the workplace.

No we don’t.

We jail people for drugs and have not diminished the use at all.
We have for profit prison systems. They want more and more prisoners ,for longer and longer time. When a person is in prison, they will try to find a way to keep them there. It makes more money for them.

Again, one cite, any state in the USA will do, of a law that a private sale between individuals requires that the object being sold must be tested for lead.

And at least quote the book. So far you’re not giving us anything. Felonies are a big deal - the thought that all of us are committing them unknowingly all the time is ludicrous. If you said we’re violating some obscure OSHA regulation every day, I could maybe accept that, but not a felony.

Here’s one for you: the Honest Services Law. The Supreme Court is hearing a case on it now. Basically, if you lie to anyone in the course of your employment, you are committing a felony. Interestingly, the government is exempt from the law.:slight_smile:

And here’s the lead law: