How many laws are governing you at this very moment?
Driving across America we find ourselves constantly driving through invisible barriers where new laws come into play and old ones fade away. We have no clue as to what laws they are, or even how many, but these laws have the potential to ruin our lives.
In a country that claims to be the land of the free, the number of people under the control of the U.S. corrections system has exploded over the last 25 years to more than 7.3 million, or 1 in every 31 U.S. adults, according to a report by the Pew Center on the States. The actual number of people behind bars rose to 2.3 million, nearly five times more than the world’s average.
But true criminals are not the problem.
Headlines in the New York Times have repeatedly showed us the irony of our current dilemma - "Crime Keeps on Falling, But Prisons Keep on Filling," "Prison Population Growing Although Crime Rate Drops," "Number in Prison Grows Despite Crime Reduction," and "More Inmates, Despite Slight Drop in Crime."
Logically then, if crime keeps falling, we simply won’t be able to build prisons fast enough.
We can only hope that real crime goes up so our criminal justice system will have real criminals to go after.
The Number of Laws
In 1982, Ronald Gainer, a retired Justice Department official, was commissioned to oversee a project that remains to this date, the most comprehensive attempt ever to count the number of federal laws currently in place.
The effort was being conducted as part of a long and failed campaign to persuade Congress to revise the criminal code, which by the 1980s was scattered among 50 titles and 23,000 pages of federal law.
After two full years of work, they were only able to offer an educated guess of “over 3,000” laws, which most people scoffed at.
One recent estimate that I came across was that people in the U.S. are currently governed by over 16 million laws. Because of the regional nature of these laws, few of them pertain to everyone at any given moment.
The U.S. currently boasts the highest rate of incarceration of any country at any time in history, a full 25% of the world’s prison population. We also have the greatest number of laws of any country at any time in history, laws created by nearly 90,000 separate governmental entities. This spaghetti mess of rules and regulation is so complicated that virtually any person can get tripped up by them. One simple mistake may very well result in incarceration, and it goes downhill from there.
Estimating the Real Toll
According to Justice Department Statistics 2,292,133 adults were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails at the end of 2009. This amounts to 1% of all adults in the U.S. In addition, 4,933,667 more were either on probation or parole.
In total, 7,225,800 adults were under control of the correctional system (probation, parole, jail, or prison) in 2009 — roughly 3.1% of adults in the U.S. resident population.
Going beyond those directly affected by the correction’s system are the spouses, children, family members, and friends. Estimates range as high as 30% of all American are within one degree of separation from a prisoner, and 100% are within 2 degrees.
Incarceration is a system that breeds failure.
On the prisoner level, an incoming prisoner is instantly immersed in an “us-vs-them” mindset as their surrounding community is transformed into the worst of all possible social circles.
On the operational level, success in the prison industry is not measured by how many lives have been improved, but rather on occupancy levels, the number of prison incidents and escape attempts, and how well the budget is managed.
On the justice system level, more prisoners translate into larger budgets. The system was created to protect people from criminals. It was based on the notion that if someone is removed from society they can no longer harm anyone. While certain crimes warrant imprisonment, it becomes an inappropriate form of punishment for most.
In addition to creating a pervasive prison culture within our own population, it has become culturally divisive. In 2006, blacks, which represent less than 13% of the total U.S. population, comprised 37.5 percent of all state and federal prisoners. The general prison population is made up of one out of every 33 black men, one out of every 79 Hispanic men, and one out of every 205 white men.
Solving the Problem
We currently have no check-and-balance system for impeding the excessive law-writing, rule enforcement, and prison-building currently taking place. Simply adding friction to the process will slow it down.
For this reason I would like to offer the following 4-step approach to solving this enormous problem.
- Step One – Demand Visibility: Make it a requirement that all laws be posted in one central location online. As a first step towards getting a handle on the runaway law-creators, we need to create a law that requires all laws be posted on one central website online. Any laws not posted will be deemed unenforceable.
- Step Two – Demand Understandability: Make it a requirement that all laws be written on an 8th grade comprehension level. Laws are unenforceable until they have been certified as having been written on this level.
- Step Three – Demand Enforcement: Make it a requirement that any laws that have not been enforced in that past 20 years become unenforceable and must be removed from the list. Time spent getting rid of the clutter means less time for creating new laws.
- Step Four – Remove Conflicts of Interest: Make it a requirement that no government be allowed to directly profit from the enforcement of their own laws. Whenever there’s a profit motive linked to law enforcement, the nature of government changes, and our humanity becomes compromised.
With a society that is already heavily invested in our current systems, and people already pre-programmed to think and act accordingly, the operating system can only be changed by rewriting the source code. In short, we need to create systems for changing the system.
My Challenge to You: I would like to challenge everyone who reads this column to convince me that this will not be an effective approach. Please leave your comments below.
Few believe this is a sustainable system.
People who enter prison cannot lead productive lives. Removing them from wage-earning positions and turning them into wards of the state is a recipe for economic disaster.
Nearly every person who currently feeds off this system, including police, judges, lawyers, wardens, and prison guards is leaching off and income stream that will soon shrivel to a fraction of its current size.
Future Justice Systems
The current justice system is a monopoly, with the irony being that they need to have their own anti-trust division take a long hard look at their own system.
Rather than using an “us-vs-them” police force, putting the first level of monitoring criminal behavior into the hands of average citizens is already doable. Camera phones with both visual and audio recording capabilities are already being used to create evidence for court cases.
A self-monitoring society is one that will assume responsibility for its own rules, morals, and ethics. Yes, there still needs to be laws, regulations, and guidelines, but the enforcement of them should be place in the hands of people who do not feel a constant need to justify their own existence.
Once criminal behavior has been uncovered, a new organization will be created to decide on a corrective course of action. Whether it will be based on a restorative justice system like many cities are experimenting with to make the injured party whole again, or whether it’s an e-justice system where a virtual judge and jury dole out an instant decision, the most likely direction will be a system that is faster, fairer, and more personalized than anything from the past. “Authentic justice” will do away with the fanfare and ceremony associated with today’s courtrooms.
Future punishment will take many forms, with incarceration only being used as the “option of last resort.”
Taking productive members of society away from their ability to earn a living, provided it was a legal income stream, will no longer be an option.
I particularly like the ideas that my good friend Jeff Samson recently suggested.
“With the advent of, pervasive camera networks, drones, satellites and “Terrabyters” and taissers it appears that typical prison systems may get challenged. Prisons are expensive commitments of land architecture, people and resources while the less expensive ability to track and control individuals digitally is growing rapidly.
Sensational news groups may do the job for us. A variation on “Entertainment Tonight” which hounds celebs may be “Convict News”, Who’s in your neighborhood now and how far did Freddy get today. Some reality shows are close to that now. It doesn’t appear that a concern for public privacy will restrain such a move based on the evening news and transparency is a very popular trend. So let’s start a show!”
I also like the idea of future technology being able to closely match the punishment to the crime.
As an example, a person who is a pickpocket will lose their ability to use their right arm for the next six years, or a burglar will lose their ability to use their legs for the next 8 years, or a rapist will experience a constant state of erectile dysfunction for the next 20 years.
As we peel away the onionskins of transparency, our options for self-monitoring and self-correction will reveal unusual new alternatives for righting the wrongs of society.
Are we truly the most evil country on the planet? That's what our prison population numbers are saying to the rest of the world.
When systems become overbearing we lose our ability to innovate.
The current justice system is stomping all over our ability to build ourselves a better future. If we lose our relevancy, others will be quick to take over the top spot.
Author of "Communicating with the Future" - the book that changes everything