Another interesting social issue related to the is its effect on our penal system especially the millions of folks we’ve got locked up right now. Take a prisoner with a 50-year sentence. If he has to serve his entire sentence he wouldn’t be out until 2050, but by that time we expect inconceivable advances in genetics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence/robotics, all of which could have implications for his case. First, he could be cured, either through genetic therapy or something like nanorobots inserted in his brain. At a minimum technology could provide the ability to monitor him on a minute-by-minute basis. If you consider the first a form of “rehabilitation” and the second a form of “protection”, the only remaining reasons to keep him locked up would be vengeance and punishment, both of which, of course, seem unfortunately to be not only tolerated but actively encouraged in today’s society.
Not coincidentally, the US leads the entire world in incarceration rate and total number of people behind bars. We put about 7 times as many people in prison as Canada, and 12 times as many as Japan. Studies show that the rise is due less to an increase in crime and more to lengthier sentences (partially due to mandatory sentencing guidelines) and harsher parole policies. The longer sentences are gradually turning our prisons into nursing homes with bars; the percentage of inmates my age or older has doubled over the last ten years, and for these grayhairs, costs of medical care can be triple. That is if the systems bother to spend the money; in California last year medical neglect and malpractice killed inmates at the rate of one per week. The longer sentences have also, perversely, increased recidivism, as have picayune parole violation policies. By race, one out of eight black men between the ages of 25-29 is in jail; in some states incarceration rates for blacks exceed that for whites by a factor of ten. At the same time, prison costs are busting state budgets such as that in California, which spends over $10 billion a year on its correctional system, and that excludes new construction of $7.5 billion to be built with borrowed money which today’s Californians’ children and grandchildren will pay back. The fiscal 2008-2009 budget now being prepared is expected to slash school funding and spending on state parks as part of across-the-board 10% cuts, while spending on corrections increases
by nearly 10%. The correctional system is so big now that the guards’ union, a key element of the so-called “prison-industrial complex”, is a major force in state politics. Spending on prisons is expected to exceed that on higher education by as soon as 2010.