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A rant about incarceration

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell's book, "David and Goliath." The whole book is about how the mythos of the story of David's vanquishing Goliath misses the point. Anytime an underdog beats the favorite, there is surprise, but often the surprise comes from the fact that the underdog was unreasonably expected to fight/oppose the favorite on the favorite's terms. Sure, in hand-to-hand combat David could never have defeated Goliath. However, looking at the fact that David was essentially artillery against a foot soldier, the artillery is expected to win. It is a phenomenal book, and what I have shared so far is only the beginning of the book. What I really want to discuss here is where the book ends. I am not going to recreate for you the journey from the beginning of the book to the end, as I could never do Mr. Gladwell's prose justice. However, the ending of the book is what I want to discuss here (I don't think one can spoil a non-fiction book, but if you would rather read the book for yourself before reading my take on it, by all means, please stop reading now and come back after you have read Mr. Gladwell's work).

The ending of the book, more like the second half of the book, discusses inverted U-curves. When I was in college majoring in Economics, the concept that we saw inverted U-curves with was the concept of diminishing marginal returns. Put as simply as I can, diminishing marginal returns is "fancy-speak" for more does not necessarily mean better. I remember distinctly when my Econ 101 professor showed us the clip of "Cool Hand Luke" where Paul Newman's character stuffs his face with hard-boiled eggs. As the professor explained, the first egg went down easily, Newman's character might have even enjoyed it. This might have still been true for eggs 2 through 5. However, once he starts on egg number 6, the eggs start going down less easily and his enjoyment is quickly turning to displeasure. Another example (still food related) is how much a starving person might value a Snickers bar as compared to a person who has all the food they could ever need. The price of the Snickers bar is the same for both people, but its value to each of them is very different.

Mr. Gladwell brings up the concept of diminishing marginal returns to discuss the problems with using incarceration as the primary response to crime. He tells the story of a man whose daughter was brutally murdered and how the man made it his mission to put into place California's three-strikes law making a person face a mandatory life sentence for their third strike. The man prided himself on having saved hundreds, if not thousands, of people from being victimized because offenders were put away for life and therefore unable to victimize people in the community any further. However, as Mr. Gladwell rightly points out, the gentleman who helped get the three-strikes law on the books was missing a crucial component of incarceration - - the people the incarcerated person leaves behind.

Throughout my career, one of my greatest frustrations lies in the emphasis that is placed on incarceration as a consequence of criminal conduct. Don't get me wrong, there are people who through their actions absolutely can be said to have forfeited their right to be walking among us in the community. However, I would confidently say that those individuals are in the minority. Most people who are incarcerated should not be, not because their crime is not serious, not because they deserve better (although they do), but because we are worse off by incarcerating them. It is rare that the incarcerated person is an island to themselves. They have children, parents, significant others, employers, employees, and myriad other people who will be harmed by their absence. That harm then has an impact on the rest of us, most saliently in the form of increased crime!

It is confounding how often people do not want to acknowledge that criminal behavior is not so much a function of poor morals, but rather a function of desperation. Sure, there are people who shoplift despite having the money to pay for the merchandise. But most people who have the means to pay, do. People don't sell drugs if they have other sufficient means of making money. So all these children of incarcerated people (mostly black men), they are left without a provider and without a model for adulthood. This leads to desperation and desperation leads to crime. When crime leads to incarceration, the incarcerated person is removed from their community and thrust into a community of other incarcerated people. They have no choice but to learn more about criminality. After spending whatever period of time isolated from the community at large, they then get thrown back into society without the means to adapt. Desperation increases. Crime increases. So sure, if there were no incarceration, beginning to incarcerate a few people would help reduce crime. But at some point, we cross the middle of the inverted u-curve and crime begins to increase again. Enough incarceration eggs!!! They are making us all sick.

We desperately need to find alternatives to prison.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

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