The only reason humans haven’t gone extinct is our ability to rise above personal interest.
The world is never very far from chaos and barbarism. Every human being is a sentient, self-aware individual with a personality that has been shaped by every event and every person in their lives to this point. Everybody wants to feel safe, everybody wants enough to eat, and everybody wants to feel in charge of their own destiny. These desires are amplified when one is part of a family, a clan, or a society and this sets up tensions that have erupted into everything from individual confrontations to genocide over the entire history of the world.
Today, we think of ourselves as “civilized,” different from the barbarians of the past. Yet the 20th and 21stcenturies have seen the worst humankind has to offer including almost continuous warfare on a global scale, famine, genocide, and an unbalanced distribution of wealth and privilege never before seen in human history. The only reason humans haven’t gone extinct is our ability to rise above personal interest and develop traits such as compassion, empathy, self-sacrifice, and a sense of right and wrong. We have developed laws to bring order out of chaos and we have developed ways to enforce those laws that have the potential to move society forward unlike any other time in history.
There are undoubtedly people who have committed crimes that require sequestering them from society. These are mainly violent crimes or crimes where someone has acted in a way that, though not violent, requires protecting the populace from them. In general, incarceration is a way to protect others from violence or nonviolent exploitation, but is also supposed to be a conduit for society to try and rehabilitate these offenders, though this rarely happens nowadays. A second class of criminals that likely need incarceration are those that have used their power and influence to prey on others. These are usually white-collar crimes where a deterrent is needed that actually affects the criminal. Fines, sanctions, or loss of position is no deterrent to a multimillionaire, while threat of incarceration might be.
In a civilized society, incarceration should not be considered punishment. The idea of taking away someone’s freedom as punishment for petty theft or most drug crimes is falling back on our worst instincts — “they broke the law and deserve whatever they get!” This is nothing more than 21st century barbarism rearing its ugly head. Drug rehabilitation, community service, reparations to victims, and other types of remedies are not only better for the individual criminal, but better for society.
Indiscriminate incarceration, beyond being barbaric, only worsens our societal problems; it is very expensive to incarcerate someone, incarcerated people are more prone to recidivism, recidivistic individuals often escalate their crimes for many reasons, and it pulls a potentially productive individual out of the workforce.
The United States incarcerates a larger percentage of our population than any other country on earth. There are many reasons for this statistic (for-profit prisons, for instance) but we need to find better ways to enforce our laws or we may find ourselves falling back into the pattern of chaos and barbarism that has plagued humanity for the entirety of our history.
This article was previously published in Ilumination.