Monday, January 15, 2007

Seeking Dickens: mental illness and prisons

We really need a Charles Dickens for the 21st century. Emphases mine.
The Mentally Ill, Behind Bars - New York Times
Bernard E. Harcourt, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Chicago, is the author of “Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing and Punishing in an Actuarial Age.”

... Over the past 40 years, the United States dismantled a colossal mental health complex and rebuilt — bed by bed — an enormous prison. During the 20th century we exhibited a schizophrenic relationship to deviance.

After more than 50 years of stability, federal and state prison populations skyrocketed from under 200,000 persons in 1970 to more than 1.3 million in 2002. That year, our imprisonment rate rose above 600 inmates per 100,000 adults. With the inclusion of an additional 700,000 inmates in jail, we now incarcerate more than two million people — resulting in the highest incarceration number and rate in the world, five times that of Britain and 12 times that of Japan.

What few people realize, though, is that in the 1940s and ’50s we institutionalized people at even higher rates — only it was in mental hospitals and asylums. Simply put, when the data on state and county mental hospitalization rates are combined with the data on prison rates for 1928 through 2000, the imprisonment revolution of the late 20th century barely reaches the level we experienced at mid-century. Our current culture of control is by no means new.

... It should be clear why there is such a large proportion of mentally ill persons in our prisons: individuals who used to be tracked for mental health treatment are now getting a one-way ticket to jail.

Of course, there are important demographic differences between the two populations. In 1937, women represented 48 percent of residents in state mental hospitals. In contrast, new prison admissions have consistently been 95 percent male. Also, the mental health patients from the 1930s to the 1960s were older and whiter than prison inmates of the 1990s.

... One of the most reliable studies estimates that the increased prison population over the 1990s accounted for about a third of the overall drop in crime that decade.

However, prisons are not the only institutions that seem to have this effect. In a recent study, I demonstrated that the rate of institutionalization — including mental hospitals — was a far better predictor of serious violent crime from 1926 to 2000 than just prison populations. The data reveal a robust negative relationship between overall institutionalization (prisons and asylums) and homicide. Preliminary findings based on state-level panel data confirm these results...

Harcourt is careful to note that the prison/institution relationship is not a simple substitution, but I'd be surprised if there weren't a strong relationship. Humans are really not all that well put together. We're running a 15,000 yo cognitive system way out of its operational range. We do astoundingly well all things considered -- but, really, we're very buggy thinkers. We need to to rethink the "problem of the weak" on many levels.

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