Loury: How much human value is behind bars?

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer Glenn C. Loury, a social sciences professor at Brown University, speaks Tuesday during the Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Glenn Loury painted a picture of social injustice: An African-American boy grows up in a housing project with no father because he’s been in prison for the last few years. There are gangs selling drugs on every corner, and although the gangs are clearly dangerous, as the boy gets older he’s swayed into joining a group because the alternative is to be victimized by it. The boy sees his friends get locked up, but he also sees them return after a few years seemingly stronger, brazen with prison tattoos and survival skills they didn’t have before. They become a perverse role model for the boy and other youth in the community.

“Peer influences are deleterious,” Loury said. “The sense of hope and vision for the future is stunted. If a person is exposed to that kind of environment that they might join a gang, that they might be found to be carrying a weapon, that they might be a hustler, [the result] can’t come as a great surprise.”

The boy portrayed in this picture most likely ends up in prison, an example of social injustice because he is a product of his surroundings, a victim of circumstance. Are we as a society, Loury said, collectively responsible for his actions, for his future? Loury addressed this question — among others — at the 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy with his discussion, “The Divided Society and the Democratic Ideal.” It was part of Week Two’s lecture theme, “With Economic Justice for All.”

Loury, a professor of social sciences at Brown University, used the United States’ prison and criminal justice system as a backdrop for the greater problem of race, inequality and social justice.

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world. While accounting for five percent of the world’s population, the U.S. holds 25 percent of the world’s inmates. The number of people behind bars has increased from about 300,000 people in 1970 to about 2 million people in 2000, according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

These are outrageous statistics, Loury said, and it’s no surprise that the majority of America’s inmates are African-Americans, taken from inner-city streets.

The argument he presented was twofold. It’s undeniable that the people who are incarcerated committed crimes and should, by the American justice system’s standards, be sent to prison. But society also has this “collective responsibility, because these people are embedded in situations that militate toward acting in a way that then gets punished by the law.

“Can we be moved to temper the way in which we deal with such people in light in our understanding that, while they have exercised their freedom in a way that we must punish, nevertheless the exercise of that freedom occurred in a context for which we are partly responsible?” he said.

This becomes a moral question, instead of a technical one that can be solved with data and economic analysis.

Social scientists can use studies and fact sheets to answer questions in numerical ways. They can determine if increasing the length of prison sentences stops people from committing certain crimes; if implementing a three-strikes-you’re-out policy is an adequate use of prison space, keeping those who might be repeat offenders behind bars until they are past the prime potential offending age; if capital punishment deters murders.

None of these statistics factor in the critical question raised by Loury: “How much weight do I want to put on the well-being of a thug, to speak pejoratively?”

Say the prison sentence for a crime is increased from five to 10 years, he said. That’s not a small increment when you’re talking about years being taken from a person’s life. And it’s not only that person who is affected — what about his family? His child?

His child is innocent. His child is now growing up without a father, and he loops right back into the portrait of social injustice, continuing the cycle.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between the institution of punishment and the communities from which the people who are being punished come,” Loury said.

U.S. prisons are also being used as a “second line of defense” to deal with the people who were primarily failed by other social institutions. 

These incarcerated people are some of the most disadvantaged people in our society, Loury said. Most are high school dropouts who now have no access to job training. A large portion has mental and physical health problems or come from abusive and broken homes.

While there is no easy or definite answer to this problem, Loury posed some suggestions for moving forward.

We need to find a way to put context to the crimes that people in these situations are committing before we delegate the punishments, he said. We also need to reverse some of our policy.

Loury continued by stating that prison sentences are too long, the war on drugs hasn’t been worth the cost that it’s imposed, and the three-strikes policy doesn’t have evidence to support a significant reduction in criminal offending.

“We could do a lot less punishing without exposing ourselves to too much more of an increase in public safety,” he said.      

The greater majority of the public, which feels threatened by the inner-city violence, thinks people in our justice system who show humility to criminals stuck in these situations are fools, Loury said. But they are not fools — they are conflicted because they understand the full scope of the struggle at hand.