In an early scene in the John Wayne movie The Cowboys, Wayne’s character, cattleman Will Anderson, has been reduced to hiring schoolboys as hands for a cattle drive (all the adult men young and healthy enough have run off with gold fever). While out training his new charges, Anderson is approached by a group of men led by a man identified in the credits only as Long Hair (played by Bruce Dern, in perhaps the best bad guy performance in all of film history). He approaches Anderson about cattle drive work, but is caught in a lie about past employment, and is rebuffed by Anderson. Long Hair is nonplussed, given Anderson’s obvious lack of options, and admits the truth:
LH: Well, I’ve been caught at it haven’t I? Mr. Anderson, I’m sorry I lied to you...you see, we’re
fresh out of jail, and you tell that to people and they just turn a deaf ear on you.
Anderson: well, I’m afraid I can’t use you.
LH: how do you mean, you can’t use us?
Anderson: I mean I won’t use you.
LH: you mean you’re going to be like everyone else and not give us a chance to redeem ourselves?
Anderson: I don’t hold jail against you, but I hate a liar.
LH: well...you’re a hard man, Mr. Anderson.
Anderson: It’s a hard life.
In the movie, of course, Dern’s character actually is a bad guy. But Anderson’s admission that it is the character flaw of lying he cannot abide, and not the fact that the state found Watts and his men guilty of crimes, comes across as a quintessentially American way of seeing things; students of our history can attest that, at least in the American West, as often as not the difference between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ was just a matter of timing. We have come a long way in our views on crime, criminals, and the way they should be treated by our society. But just because we view current methods and mores as advanced and humane does not make it so.
Stories of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of guards are depressingly easy to find: that sort of thing, as reprehensible as it is, has undoubtedly occurred in every prison that has ever existed. More disturbing are the ways in which the desire to be “tough on crime” led to the penal system existing in large part to make money, both in local jails and courthouse and in the prison system itself . That both of those stories are out of New York is illustrative only of the fact that New York is the national media hub: the underlying ways in which the penal system is (or at least has been) run hold true across the country.
There is no end to the books and articles on the American justice system, and the need to reform that system. In 2016 both the Republican and Democrat national committees included prison reform in their platforms. The entire original point of the Black Lives Matter movement was drawing attention to the need for criminal justice reform. Why are reforms so slow in coming?
One major problem is the reflex, on the part of both politicians and activists, to make reforms a national issue. The number of people within the purview of the federal justice system in a given year is actually relatively small: the vast majority of those incarcerated in America are in state prisons or local jails. The federal government (rightly) has little to no say in how those are run. It sounds nice on the stump for candidates for national office to give lip service to reforms, but it’s also easy. They have no skin in the game. Reforms of both the the justice and penal aspects of the system will only come from the bottom up, not the other way around.
Unfortunately, this won’t be easy. The fact is that state and local law enforcement agencies employ over a million people in this country. That’s not even counting the myriad lawyers, clerks, guards, and various other doubtless absolutely necessary personnel required to keep the system functioning in all its ineffectual glory. Just like everything else governments do, this costs money.A whole lot of money, as it turns out. The desire by a swath of the electorate for the government to be both tough on crime and also not require too much additional tax revenue is what leads to things like prisoner book kickback programs and for-profit private prisons. Budgetary concerns also lead to one of the largest problems on the local level: the ludicrous system of fines and fees which traps so many people in a seemingly never ending cycle of court dates.
Which leads to the biggest change to the justice system over the last few decades: us. Progressive-era reforms led to both the advent of large prison complexes with rehabilitation as a stated goal, replacing the focus on corporal and labor punishments of the past. It all took on a very clinical facade; prisons staffed with psychiatrists attempting to analyze the crime out of the criminal became the norm. The parole system developed. We decided to fight a war on both crime and drugs, leading to harsher sentences and mandatory minimums. The politicians continued to do what they always do, passing laws to fix things and then promising more fixes for the things the last law screwed up.
Somewhere along the line we lost sight of the dehumanizing effect the system can have on people; it’s entirely possible that corporal punishment over a much shorter period of time allows for a retention of dignity that years in a modern cell under constant state supervision does not. Serious and violent crime has to be punished, but it’s difficult to see how the current way we treat other crimes is effective at anything other than creating jobs in the justice and penal systems, which in turn requires tightening the screws just a little more to produce more criminals and fines and fees. There are too many prisoners in this country because there are too many laws in this country, and too many people dependent on the enforcement of those laws. We aren’t Will Anderson anymore. We do hold jail against you. And then we charge you for it.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.