The United States has the highest number of incarcerated people in the world, with over two million prisoners currently behind bars. As each inmate costs the taxpayer over $30,000, that total cost adds up to over sixty billion dollars a year. (Source)
Obviously, American prisons are both full and expensive, and as the amount of violent crimes is going up, they aren’t likely to become less crowded. (Source) How can we, as a country, reduce both the amount of crime and the amount of people incarcerated?
One proposed solution is to get rid of our current prison system altogether. No, I’m not talking about anarchy or The Purge; quite the opposite. A possible solution to societal crime is to place prisoners in live-in mental health facilities instead of jails.
Over fifty percent of federal prisoners suffer from serious mental illness, including schizophrenia, severe depression, and BPD. (Source) And that’s just the extreme side of the equation, which doesn’t take into account the prisoners who suffer from dysthymia (mild depression) or anxiety disorders. If we could offer long-term, full-time therapy to people whose mental disorders have led to the perpetration of crimes, imagine how many could go on to become productive members of society! This sort of treatment would help everyone, including the felons in question.
Of course, no solution is perfect. Guards would still be necessary to prevent psychiatric staff from physical harm, and extremely violent offenders who showed no sign of progress would likely never be released back into their communities. However, that’s in no way worse than the current system, which shoves prisoners into dark corners and forgets about them. At least with mental health care, even violent offenders would have the potential to improve themselves.
This idea may seem naive, but several European countries present perfect case studies. As shown in Denmark, Norway, and Finland, countries with better mental health care for prisoners and compassionate felon rehabilitation have less crime. Some of these countries even have “open prisons,” where prisoners are allowed to visit their families or go to jobs during the day. (Source) While that may be too extreme of a philosophy to introduce to a society that loves to hate cartoon villains, these countries still demonstrate that kindness, empathy, and psychiatric care pay off.
We have too many criminal activities and too little time devoted to the people perpetrating them. America, the tough-on-crime approach doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe it’s time we try something new.