Can Capitalism Reduce Mass Incarceration?

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"Just Mercy" author Bryan Stevenson believes in creating incentives to reduce the country's prison population.

My name is Bryan Stevenson. I'm a human rights lawyer in Montgomery, Alabama. I direct a project called the Equal Justice Initiative. And my dangerous idea is about how to overcome mass imprisonment and excessive punishment in America.

Our prison population has gone from 300,000 in 1972 to 2.3 million [in 2017]. We've got six million people on probation and parole, 68 million Americans with criminal arrests. I think that we could radicalize our commitment to helping people recover from the mistakes they make — if we began to incentivize our vast infrastructure of jails and prisons to actually pick up the challenge of rehabilitation, of restoration, of recovery.

What I would I'd like to do is to create financial prizes for the prisons that release people who have the lowest recidivism rate. I'd like to reward correctional employees who find ways to inspire and educate and empower the people who are in prison and incarcerated under their supervision to leave prison and never come back.

I think you'd see a very different prison system emerge. You wouldn't have the indifference to what happens. You wouldn't tolerate the abuse and misjudgments and mistreatment. You'd actually have people pulling together to find ways to help people stay free from drugs and alcohol dependency, stay free from the violence and the environments that create despair and suffering.

I think it would radicalize our criminal justice system. But more than that, I think it would revolutionize our society. There are too many people living hopelessly and I think we ought to be creating the incentives — and I don't have a problem making them financial incentives — to turn the prison industrial complex into something that's more like the redemption industrial complex, where we actually invest in changing lives rather than throwing lives away.

I think we've just abandoned rehabilitation in ways that have left us really vulnerable. And we now see this revolving door where lots of communities are just being fractured by the way in which there is no stability or security or public safety. And so, yes, I think we need to reorient ourselves to a new concept of justice that really is rooted in helping people recover.