One night in November 2011, a forty-four year old man named Anthony Jerome Jackson broke into a hotel room in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and ran away with a guest’s wallet. Police arrested Jackson shortly afterwards at a nearby restaurant. For this crime, a South Carolina court sentenced Jackson to life in prison without parole. He will spend the rest of his life behind bars, with no chance of freedom.
Was this punishment proportional to Jackson’s crime? An African-American from the impoverished South Carolina town of Conway, Jackson worked a low-wage job as a cook and received only a sixth grade education. His theft of the wallet appeared to be motivated by financial desperation. He was also unarmed when he committed the crime. However, Jackson was convicted of two burglaries in the past. Under South Carolina’s three-strikes law, a person convicted of a third crime must receive a harsh sentence—usually life without parole. Besides the death penalty, life without parole is the most severe punishment in the U.S. criminal justice system. Jackson is now permanently removed from society. He will never return home to his family. Taxpayers will pay millions of dollars to hold Jackson in prison until he dies of natural causes.
Jackson’s story must be situated in the context of mass incarceration. In the 1980s, U.S. politicians began to introduce “tough-on-crime” laws, including the three-strikes law, to tackle high crime rates. These laws lengthened prison sentences and expanded the range of crimes that were punishable by prison. As a consequence, the U.S. prison population has grown to be the largest in the world. In total, there are roughly 1.6 million people incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons. Approximately 40 to 50% of these inmates are in prison for committing nonviolent crimes. Jackson is part of a smaller, even more tragic subset: he is one of several thousand nonviolent criminals who have been sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Sending increasing numbers of nonviolent criminals to prison, and for longer periods of time, has been instrumental to the rise of mass incarceration. Advocates of criminal justice reform argue that this specific practice has backfired. Not only is it expensive to hold people in prison, inmates are unable to work and support their families. Exposing nonviolent criminals to violent inmates may increase their likelihood for future crime once they leave prison. More broadly, some groups argue that incarceration is immoral, racially biased, and ineffective at reducing crime.
However, many Americans support the incarceration of nonviolent criminals. Beyond fulfilling a sense of justice, whereby criminal behavior is punished, supporters argue that incarceration has the effect of reducing crime across society. On one hand, incarceration protects society from proven criminals. When people are held in prison, they are unable to commit further crimes. Moreover, supporters argue that the threat of incarceration deters people from committing crimes. While the link is debatable, crime rates have fallen since the onset of “tough-on-crime” laws.
Anthony Jerome Jackson committed a crime when he stole a wallet. While he almost certainly does not deserve life imprisonment for doing so, the state must respond to this sort of criminal behavior. The question before you is how.
The NHSDLC is excited to announce the following resolution for the Fall 2018 season:
Resolved: In the United States criminal justice system, only people convicted of violent crimes should be sentenced to prison.
Good luck to all debaters in the upcoming season.