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The Unsustainability of Incarceration

At the Being Human conference last week, David Eagleman laid out the scientific case that ‘human behavior cannot be separated from human biology.’ His argument, which he brilliantly summarizes in a 2011 Atlantic article, applies directly to his work in neurobiology and its role in our current justice system.

The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens — equal before the law — possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt.

A few facts for perspective:

  • There are more than 6,000,000 individuals under ‘correctional supervision’ in the United States, more than the population of Massachusetts.

  • In the past two decades our incarceration rates have tripled to 743 individuals per 100,000, the highest rate in the world.

  • Department of Justice study found that 56 percent of state prisoners and 45 percent of federal prisoners have symptoms of serious mental illnesses.

  • The money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education. Specifically in California, the state spends $8,667 per student per year. It spends about $50,000 per inmate per year.

These statistics, along with his neurobiology research, motivated Eagleman to launch the initiative Neuroscience and the Law at Baylor College of Medicine. NeuLaw brings together neurobiologists, legal scholars, ethicists, medical humanists, and policy makers to recommend changes to the legal system that take into account the nuances of biology.

You may be wondering what this has to do with triple bottom line and sustainable business, but when you look at these incarceration statistics it paints a picture that does not lead to a socially-just society or economy. Prisons now fall into the category of big business; many are currently privatized so there is a monetary incentive for increased cell occupancy. Private prison companies are spending millions lobbying politicians to support prison expansion. The most famous incentive case played out last year.  It showed the fallacy of the privatized system when a judge made headlines after being sentenced to 28 years in prison for receiving a cash kickback for each child he placed within a private juvenile justice facility.

Our incarceration system is riddled with racial bias and fed by an unjust drug policy. It doesn’t need the addition of lobbyist dollars supporting government policy that creates the incentive for an incarceration nation. Instead our legal system should be one that recognizes that those within it are not just statistics but human beings.

From a purely economic standpoint, keeping millions of citizens behind bars raises taxes on individuals and business - money that could be spent funding our indebted education system - to the benefit of future business.   It also means millions of Americans are sitting idle and unproductive, most often on drug charges, and very often suffering from mental illness that, if addressed, would put them on the road to being productive citizens.

Eagleman's main point, besides recognizing the general insanity of the war on drugs, was that if mental illness could be more readily identified, then treatment could be easily applied early on in a criminals life that would drastically reduce the likelihood of worse criminal behavior - saving lives and money.

[Image credit: mstephens7, Flickr]

Chelsea Souter is a social impact strategists devoted to implementing business strategies that increase competitive advantage while creating positive societal benefits. You can follow her musings on organizational design, behavior change, leadership development, shared values, and storytelling @ChelseaLura.

Chelsea Souter

Chelsea Souter is a social impact strategist devoted to implementing business strategies that increase competitive advantage while creating positive societal benefits. You can follow her musings on organizational design, behavior change, leadership development, shared values, responsible tourism, and storytelling @ChelseaLura.

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