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Commentary: What Is The Point Of Prison?

(via Flickr/neil conway)

The saga of Mike Anderson, a man convicted of armed robbery 13 years ago and amazingly never put in prison (except for a few months at the time he should have been released), is seemingly at an end. A circuit judge decided that making Anderson serve his sentence would “serve no purpose” and released him to live the rest of his life a free man.

The series of events raises troubling questions on the front end of the Missouri criminal justice system: How could a person guilty of a serious crime be able to escape punishment without anyone noticing?

But it also raises important questions about the point of punishing people with prison.

From all available evidence, the Mike Anderson who was not in prison for 13 years led an exemplary life. He married, had kids, started a business, and paid his taxes. He fully rehabilitated himself. Indeed, his behavior after his conviction was crucial in the judge’s decision to let him go. Punishing him wouldn’t do him or society any good.

We don’t know how Anderson would have fared in prison; thankfully. Anderson doesn’t have to know, either. Maybe he would have also led an exemplary life as an inmate. Some inmates do. But many inmates do not.

We do know that sending people to prison very often doesn’t make them better, it makes them worse. In 2011, the Pew Center released a study on recidivism rates in the 50 states. Missouri had the third highest re-offense rate in the country, with well more than half (54.4 percent) of those imprisoned committing new crimes upon release and returning to prison. Again, we don’t know what would have happened had Mike Anderson gone to prison for 13 years and been released. But we know he would be at a high risk of reoffending.

It is perhaps obvious that prisons are not a good place for people to rehabilitate themselves. But the fact that so many people put in prison go on to reoffend suggests that prison also isn’t good from a public safety standpoint.

Our first reaction (it was my first reaction) to Anderson’s story may have been: Here was a man convicted of a violent crime who was inexplicably left alone and unpunished by the criminal justice system. Society was put at risk because of a clerical error. Unacceptable and outrageous.

But there turns out to have been little risk to not imprisoning Anderson. The risk instead might have been had we put Anderson in prison. Prison is not only a bad place for making people better, it also make us all worse off in the long run. In prison, you are cut off from family, from your community and from meaningful work -- in short, from those things that can prevent you from making more bad choices and help you start making good ones.

The lesson from this is not that we shouldn’t imprison anybody. Some people belong behind bars for the sake of public safety. But not everybody is like this. Anderson’s story shows that not everybody who commits a serious crime needs prison. Supervision, yes -- and this is where the Missouri criminal justice system obviously dropped the ball -- but not necessarily prison.

Prison is expensive, not only financially, but in the human cost of those who are put there. Sure, we need to keep better track of those we convict. But we also should be more discerning about how we punish those whom we do convict. 

Chad Flanders is an assistant professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law.