Justice Kennedy asks us to rethink U.S. prisons broadly

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Kennedy not only wants the Court to hear a case as soon as possible on the constitutionality of solitary confinement, in the aftermath of the suicide of Kalief Browder, but he wants lawyers to start thinking more seriously about the prison system in general when they’re putting people there:

But Kennedy’s concurrence also seemed to be directed toward the American legal community, whose disengagement from prison issues he has previously lamented. “In law school, I never heard about corrections,” he told a congressional hearing on March 23, two weeks after the Davis oral arguments. “Lawyers are fascinated with the guilt/innocence adjudication process. Once [it] is over, we have no interest in corrections. Doctors and psychiatrists know more about the corrections system than we do.”

Although no one realized it at the time, his brief soliloquy on the crisis of “total incarceration” in March was a preview of today’s concurrence. “Too often, discussion in the legal academy and among practitioners concentrates simply on the adjudication of guilt or innocence,” Kennedy wrote. “Too easily ignored is the question is the question of what comes next. Prisoners are shut away—out of sight, out of mind.” Consideration of these issues, he stated, “is needed.”

 
I’ve been thinking about this (the theme Kennedy highlights in the quotes above) a lot while watching legal dramas. The lawyers on both sides plea-bargain in abstractions with no real sense of what they might be condemning the accused to, even for a few years. I don’t think it’s much different in the real world. Even a year or two in general population, let alone solitary confinement, is a pretty strong punishment, and I suspect many lawyers don’t think too hard about that.

Which is not to say that all prison sentences (or even most) are somehow inherently unjust, but rather that we need serious prison reform to ensure that prisons are actually constructively “correcting” and proportionally punishing criminal actions, without being excessive or abusive. We’ve got a hell of a long road ahead of us considering our society still thinks “prison rape” is a hilarious subject, not a serious problem, or that abuses by guards are irrelevant even when someone is serving time for a very minor offense because prison should be as harsh as possible.

We have a very destructive system that is killing people and destroying lives permanently, even for minor or non-violent crimes, without any consideration toward rehabilitation or even true justice.

Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and is a Senior Editor for The Globalist. Follow him @BillHumphreyMA on twitter.
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