Alternatives to … what?

When it comes to other solutions to the ever rising to-incarcerate-or-not debate, Dr. Susan Sered, a sociology professor and researcher from Suffolk University, brings up a good point about using the phrase “alternatives to incarceration.” ATIs are growing in popularity amid the rising consciousness that jails and prisons typically don’t fix the underlying issues that cause people to break the law—these being mental health issues, substance abuse, trauma and poverty, among others. But yet, ATIs presume incarceration as the fallback punishment, says Dr. Sered. Is getting people involved in the court and criminal justice system really in their—and society’s—best interests?

Dr. Sered makes the point on her blog to consider the real reasons people are literally sitting in jail: one-third are awaiting trial (because they can’t afford bail) while another third are there because of parole or probation violations, meaning their original violation wasn’t enough to merit initial jail time. She writes: “The term ‘alternatives to incarceration’ takes for granted that we are talking about ways to handle criminals who otherwise would need to be incarcerated—that incarceration is a reasonable baseline against which to measure ‘alternatives.'”

Is it? Who truly needs to be incarcerated and who needs services and counseling? Who needs a criminal record that will follow them from job to job? Who needs … hope?

Dr. Sered goes on: “It’s easier to make a case for abolition [of jails] than for ‘alternatives to incarceration.’ But that is not the direction in which public discourse seems to be moving. To the contrary, the increasingly popular sentiment goes something like this: A whole lot of people sitting in jails and prisons are mentally ill; they are drug users who need treatment more than they need punishment.”

Dr. Sered is the author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility, which chronicles the lives of 40 women over five years as they navigate incarceration and community health programs. Here is a video I made in December including comments from Dr. Sered.

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