Last Week Tonight should probably just change its name to Check Out Our Shitty Justice System at this point and call it a day. I’m pretty sure with that rich vein, they’d never run out of stories. After covering mandatory minimums, bail, and public defenders, Last Week Tonight looked at how we treat felons after they’ve been released from prison. And if you’ve been paying attention, you should know the answer is “like shit.”
It’s not that I don’t understand the impetus to punish criminals. They’ve committed crimes, they’re often scary, and most importantly, they’ve broken the rules. On an intellectual level most people would argue that criminals should be punished to serve as a deterrent to future criminal activity. In reality though, the impression that others would be exempt from following the rules turns even the most progressively inclined into a contestant on “You Think You’re Better Than Me?” We want them to pay for the crime and the personal insult. And we want to knock them down to make sure they know they aren’t better than us.
And if there were any indication that harsher punishments, harsher prison conditions, or continuing punishment after release was having any positive effects on recidivism rates, I’d be more open to the idea of treating criminals poorly for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately most indications say that further depriving people who have been deprived their entire lives isn’t forcing them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps the way we’d like. More precisely, removing the only kind of aid and support system most parolees have is worsening the conditions that created the criminality in the first place.
So what do we do? Assuming that the kind of rehabilitation focused prison systems that seem to be working are an impossibility for the U.S., we could maybe start on repealing the “tough on crime” laws that were passed in the 90s? Or begin changing the probation requirements so that parolees can fulfill them? Or begin funding the probation offices so that they can fulfill the probation requirements? Or maybe, at the very least, we could start treating convicted felons like people who screwed up instead of as irredeemable monsters who are out to hurt and cheat us. Which would actually be way more in line with the American spirit. Because we do love to punish those who have injured us, but only slightly less than we love a good comeback.