A depressing story out today:
For the first time in the nation’s history, more than one in 100 American adults are behind bars, according to a new report.
Nationwide, the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to almost 1.6 million, after three decades of growth that has seen the prison population nearly triple. Another 723,000 people are in local jails.
The number of American adults is about 230 million, meaning that one in every 99.1 adults is behind bars.
Incarceration rates are even higher for some groups. One in 36 adult Hispanic men is behind bars, based on Justice Department figures for 2006. One in 15 adult black men is, too, as is one in nine black men ages 20 to 34.
The report, from the Pew Center on the States, also found that one in 355 white women ages 35 to 39 is behind bars, compared with one in 100 black women.
Over a year ago, I blogged about the US as the "world's leading jailer" and wondered then if some part of this problem - the fact that US society cannot seem to function peacefully without an appalling large number of people in jail - was due to a failure of Legalism. You know: the harsh and unbending punishment of non-violent felons, especially drug felons, fills the jails. But I am reading the Analects with my tutorial now, and that text brings other possibilities to mind. Think about 2.3:
The Master said: "If you use government to show them the Way and punishment to keep them true, the people will grow evasive and lose all remorse. But if you use Integrity to show them the Way and Ritual to keep them true, they'll cultivate remorse and always see deeply into things."
Here Confucius is also rejecting Legalist approaches: punishment. And that may be part of the US problem. But the other side of the Confucian story is exemplary moral leadership. Are leaders - not just political leaders, but social and economic elites as well - setting the best moral example for the rest of society. Are they using Integrity and Ritual (which I read as conscientious attention to doing the right thing in all circumstances) to both guide themselves toward Humanity and inspire others to follow along that path? Confucius would have us all look into ourselves and ask how each of us, in our daily performance of our Duties, might be contributing to immoral societal outcomes.
And Mencius would have something to say. When people do bad things it is because they have been influenced by a negative environment. Change the environment - which suggests changing social policies - and you can improve moral behavior throughout society:
Mencius said: “In good years, young men are mostly fine. In bad years they’re mostly cruel and violent. It isn’t that Heaven endows them with such different capacities, only that their hearts are mired in such different situations. Think about barley: if you plant the seeds carefully at the same time and in the same place, they’ll sprout and grow ripe by summer solstice. If they don’t grow the same – it’s because of the inequities in richness of soil, amounts of rainfall,or the care given by farmers. And so, all members belonging to a given species of things are the same. Why should humans be the lone exception… (11.7)
The shamefully high prison population in the US is a sign of deep and extensive societal failure. Confucians would tell us that there is much that can be done, in our personal lives as well as our social policies, to improve things. But I despair that Americans will not heed their advice....