Criminal justice and Philadelphia’s new District Attorney

What were they thinking? What are we thinking?

Philadelphians this month turned their criminal-justice system over to a man who spent his career fighting against that same criminal justice system. Larry Krasner, a 30-year civil-rights attorney, promised that as district attorney he would end mass incarceration, focus on the most serious crimes, free the wrongfully convicted, treat addiction as an illness rather than a crime, eliminate imprisonment for defendants who can’t raise bail, and — most radical of all — treat crime victims with “respect and sensitivity.”

A state-of-the-art prison that literally drove inmates crazy. (Photo via Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.)

In some quarters, Krasner’s imminent ascent as district attorney seems akin to nominating a pacifist secretary of defense or putting a climate-change denier in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Here’s a fellow who never saw a cop he liked or a criminal he hated,” wrote Christine Flowers in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Former prosecutor George Parry, also in the Inquirer, wondered if Krasner is “ideologically suited to provide proper or adequate leadership in the city’s fight against crime.” Individual police officers took to Facebook to characterize Krasner as a “creepo scumbag” and other (mostly unprintable) names.

What’s a law-abiding citizen to think? For an answer, you could do worse than visit a popular (if ghastly) Philadelphia tourist attraction.

A haunting world

The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Fairmount — just five blocks from the Art Museum — was the world’s most famous, most expensive, and most advanced prison when it opened in 1829. This was the world’s first true “penitentiary” — that is, a prison designed to foster penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of its inmates. Its Quaker-inspired philosophy presumed that criminals, if left alone with their consciences, would come to see the error of their ways and consequently reform themselves. To this end, each inmate was placed in his or her own private cell and garden, where they were painstakingly isolated from contact with other presumably fallible humans who might lead them astray.

With the benefit of our enlightened modern hindsight, you can imagine what happened. In such an atmosphere of solitary confinement, very few inmates discovered the light within themselves. But many of them did literally go crazy. Nevertheless, Eastern State Penitentiary continued to house inmates — albeit with some adjustments — until 1971. As David Halberstam observed about the Vietnam War, in government it’s always easier to continue a policy than admit failure and start over from scratch.

Overcrowding in the California state prison system. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
Overcrowding in the California state prison system. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

Today Eastern State is largely a ruin: a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. Its exhibits, audio tour, interactive experiences, and inmate art installations effectively advance its unabashed agenda: to interpret the legacy of America’s emphasis on incarceration as a solution to crime. It’s impossible to walk through this living monument to human folly without asking yourself: “What were they thinking?”

Worse than Rwanda

Now, about America’s 21st-century criminal-justice system…

For decades, criminal justice in America has been driven by fear, vengeance, and a dogged insistence that the best way to fight crime is to lock up criminals. More than 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons, a 500 percent increase over the past 40 years. Most of that increase has been for nonviolent offenses. Some 500,000 U.S. inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Although the U.S. accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. America’s per capita incarceration rate is about 1.5 times that of Rwanda and Russia and more than six times that of our neighbor, Canada. In local jails, many (if not most) inmates are locked up not because they’ve been convicted of a crime or because of any risk they might pose, but because they can’t raise their bail; that is, they’re locked up because they’re poor.

No one can predict the future, but this much seems certain: a thousand years from now — or even a century from now — people will ask the same question of our justice system that visitors now ask at Eastern State Penitentiary: “What were they thinking?”

Germany’s example

For couch potatoes who can’t make the trip to Eastern State, I recommend watching old episodes of Law and Order (not the recent spinoffs, but the original series from 1990 to 2010), currently enjoying frequent reruns on the Sundance Channel. A recurring theme finds dedicated cops and prosecutors stymied by the limitations of their system, especially when they encounter problems that can’t be solved by throwing someone in prison. In one episode, a therapist is jailed for his violent experimental treatment of the mentally troubled children in his care; following the verdict, the prosecutors are confronted by angry mothers demanding, “Who’s going to treat our children now? You?”

In England, young offenders participate in prison alternatives such as
In England, young offenders participate in prison alternatives such as "Community Payback" days, where they clear weeds and remove graffiti. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

Harsh punishment, not to mention an adversarial system that required prosecutors and defendants to approach each other as enemies, may have been the best tools for deterring crime before the advent of modern psychology and technology. But today, better tools are available.

In Germany, for example, the prison experience is geared from day one toward preparing prisoners to return to civilian life through education, job training, counseling and therapy. Prisoners live in dorms that are one step below a budget motel, and they’re released to their homes on weekends(!). Connecticut eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession and launched what it calls a “Second Chance Society,” geared toward making it easier for prisoners to get out and have a chance at a law-abiding life. Philadelphia pioneered specialized courts for first offenders, military veterans, people with mental health or emotional issues, drug users, and prostitutes — all with the aim of rehabilitating them through therapy, counseling, and other forms of support rather than simply locking them up.

GPS tags

In the future, I suspect, prosecutors and judges will focus on rehabilitation rather than conviction. Police forces will increasingly hire officers for their skills as social workers (about half of police calls today involve domestic disputes). Non-macho solutions will be embraced: raise alcohol taxes; start school days later (to prevent after-school crime); require probationers to wear GPS tags, thus making probation a feasible (and cheaper) alternative to prison. In all cases, the object will be to reduce crime, not win convictions or make criminals suffer.

“While it may come as news to Krasner,” wrote former prosecutor George Parry, “thwarting defense counsel and locking up criminals is what prosecutors are supposed to do.”

So, who is on the wrong side of history here — Parry or Krasner? As I said, come back in a hundred years — or just pay a visit to Eastern State.

Our readers respond

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on November 21, 2017

Nice article. I think there are actually a number of conservatives who understand the limits of incarceration.

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