The criminal justice system as it exists now is very punitive—historically punitive. We're punishing people who themselves have experienced a great deal of victimization. I think we need to take stock of that ethically.
"Life in the Year After Prison." That's the subtitle of Bruce Western's new book, Homeward, based on an intensive year-long study of people returning after incarceration to neighborhoods in the Boston area. But zeroing in on that one difficult year also means talking about people's lives in the years that led to prison—years generally of deep deprivation, instability, and often violence. It also means grappling with the uniquely American phenomenon of mass incarceration. How incarceration swelled into the default response to a host of complex and persistent social problems, and how, as a response, it makes almost every problem it touches worse.
A professor of sociology at Columbia University and a leading expert on the connection between mass incarceration and poverty, Western's focus leads him to plea for a justice system concerned less with dividing the guilty from the innocent and more with treating everyone with compassion and respect. As he explains in this conversation with New Thinking host Matt Watkins: "We think about incarceration as a deprivation of liberty. A different, but related, way of thinking about it is as a disruption and distortion of human relationships."