The problems with the prison system in the U.S. have been well documented, but what’s not talked about nearly as often is how things got this way. Why does there seem to be such enthusiasm for putting people in jail? One answer might be the shift toward “risk management policing” that Frank Baumgartner described in last week’s episode, but there’s something else at play — and that’s what we explore this week with Peter Enns.
Peter is an associate professor of Government at Cornell University and author of Incarceration Nation: How the United States Became the Most Punitive Democracy in the World. Peter argues that, since the 1970s, media coverage has shaped public opinion about incarceration, which lead to an increase in people going to prison even as the crime rate went down. This created a vicious cycle of people seeing news about crimes, becoming more supportive of punitive measures, and a shift away from viewing prison as a rehabilitative experience.
Much like we heard from last week about the empathy gap in policing, a similar gap exists between the people going to jail and the people watching or reading news stories about the criminal justice system. Peter taught in Cornell’s prison education program and saw firsthand what daily life looks like for inmates and the possibilities that exist for prison reform programs.
One final note: We added a new voice into the mix this week. Andy Grant, our audio engineer, had some questions for Peter that you’ll hear toward the end of the interview.
- Why do you think the general public has largely supported more punitive measures over the last several decades?
- Do you think the saying ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ holds true? What role do you think media has here?
- What other changes would you make to the current criminal justice system?
- Is it antithetical to a democratic society to have so many people incarcerated?
- We have a very high recidivism rate. This means once you’ve been to jail, you’re likely to end up going back due to a parole violation or another violation. How do you think the system can better prepare convicts to get out and stay out?
- Going forward, do you think our incarceration rate will decrease?