The Ends Didn’t Justify the Means


Our complicity in the devastating war on crime

from the July 2011 issue of Reason

At the first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson implored Republican voters to conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” of the criminal justice system. “Half of what we spend on law enforcement, the courts, and the prisons is drug related, and to what end?” Johnson asked a South Carolina audience in May. “We’re arresting 1.8 million a year in this country; we now have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country. We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. I would ask people to look at this issue; see if they don’t come to the same conclusion that I did, and that is that 90 percent of the drug problem is prohibition-related.”

The ends of justice, Johnson argues, have not justified the means of prosecution. This issue of reason is a detailed brief in support of that thesis. A system designed to protect the innocent has instead become a menagerie to imprison them. A legal code designed to proscribe specific behavior has instead become a vast, vague, and unpredictable invitation to selective enforcement. Public servants who swear on the Constitution to uphold the highest principles of justice go out of their way to stop prisoners from using DNA evidence to show they were wrongly convicted. Even before you start debating the means of the four-decade crackdown on crime and drugs, it’s important to acknowledge that the ends are riddled with serious problems.

America has one-quarter of the world’s prisoners. More than 7 million people are under correctional supervision in this country. These staggering statistics—no other country comes close in percentage terms, let alone raw numbers—have serious consequences. For one thing, there is the fiscal cost: The corrections system lags only Medicaid in government spending growth on the state level. Yet most prisons are overcrowded, underserviced, and exponentially more dangerous than any decent society should tolerate.

Worse are the cascading social effects, some of which you might not initially expect. Although prison is overwhelmingly the province of men, black women in America’s inner cities have some of the highest HIV infection rates in the developed world. Why? Because their male partners contracted the virus behind bars, via consensual sex or rape, often going undiagnosed while serving out their terms.

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