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Letters Sent to Us from the Public

Articles by Joel Martin

Articles by Margaret Wendt

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08/20/08 Incarceration

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In one of Pastor Rick Warren’s questions to Senators Barack Obama and John McCain last week in a two hour televised set of interviews, he said that the United States was 19th in high school graduations and 1st in incarcerations.  It was a nice turn of phrase but both candidates chose to address the failure of our schools and the need for merit pay for teachers.  Neither one of them wanted to address the problem of the rapid increase in the number of people in prison over the last three decades. 


There is a strong argument that the reduction in crime that we have experienced is a direct result of the lengthy sentences that people receive in the United States in contrast to the rest of the world.  Certainly, if people are in jail they are not capable of committing crimes.  The recidivism rate for people who have been incarcerated is nearly 70% so the likelihood that we will keep offenders out of circulation is greatly increased.


These statistics brought to mind an experience I had during the first week of my first job.  In 1969 I got myself hired as a teacher in the children’s unit at Manhattan State Hospital on Ward’s Island off Manhattan.  In those days I had a curly head of hair, a full beard and a buckskin jacket with fringe down the arms and across the back.  The kids immediately gave me the nickname of Wild Bill.  I was outwardly nonplussed and secretly thrilled.  Never having had a nickname, this one was better than I could have hoped for.  But the initial good feelings and popularity were short-lived.  I had been hired to teach something called language arts.  Having no teaching credentials and almost no experience, I had not the foggiest idea how to teach reading (a situation that I corrected with alacrity, but that’s a different story) so I taught addition and subtraction.  After about four days of 4+3 and 6-2 it was clear to the kids that I didn’t know what I was doing and discipline began to break down.  When it got so bad that pencils were being broken up and fired around the room I slammed my hand on the desk and announced that if everyone didn’t sit down and behave themselves immediately there would be no recess.


Instantaneously the racket stopped and everyone quickly got into their seats.  I was surprised with the reaction but pleased that I had found something that I could threaten to take away that had such a dramatic change in behavior.  Then the smallest child in the class, a little boy named Glennie raised his hand and said “Wild Bill, what’s recess?”

In that moment I understood that I was standing in front of a group of kids for whom not having the experience of running around in a playground was the tip of a very big iceberg of deprivation.  In that moment I knew that I was never going to punish them into changing their behavior.


One in a hundred of us adults in this country are in jail at an annual cost of $60 billion.  That’s 2.3 million people.  That’s more than any other country and we are less than 5% of the world’s population.  500,000 of these inmates are in jail because of drug crimes – most of them are there for possession, not distribution.  There are additional numbers there for writing bad checks and other forms of larceny.  They all far outnumber the members of organized criminal activities – there are clearly a significant number of those people and they are very dangerous.  While our rates of most crimes are parallel to other western nations we murder each other at level not experienced by any other country.


The American public has expressed and reaffirmed their desire for harsh sentences in poll after poll.  It would seem that the people are getting what they want.  But regardless of our political orientation or moral stance, the direction that we are headed in does not look like it will ultimately result in a safer, more law-abiding society.  The number of people in prisons keeps going up and the crime rate is beginning to move in that direction as well in a number of urban areas.  The economic situation, a downturn which now is predicted to extend into 2010, twice as long as it was supposed to be a few months ago will undoubtedly create more desperation and more criminal acts. 


The United States has strong Calvinist roots.  We believe in punishment.  But it seems that we are being confronted with the law of cause and effect on a variety of fronts.  We are discovering that creating wealth without underlying value is illusionary.  Our first reaction is to want to punish those who made the bad mortgages and created the derivatives that have resulted in a tottering global financial system.  But then we have to recognize our participation in using easy credit and living beyond our means. 


The solution to crime is certainly not to throw open the prison gates but we need to look at what is happening and what is likely to happen.  Right now we are on a path to incarcerating more and more people.  The alternatives to that are many; we have examples of diversion programs that work and drug treatment programs that cost less than putting people in jail and have a lower recidivism rate. 


We just need to decide whether the cultural value of punishment is worth the price that we are paying.

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It has been brought to our attention that Margaret is being portrayed as a psychic on $1.99 sites. These sites are doing so without Margaret's permission. Margaret has not claimed she is a psychic. - MW