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After a thirty-year hiatus, chain gangs are back. Alabama, fittingly enough, has been first to reinstitute this great Southern tradition. But this is no longer an exclusively Southern phenomenon. The next four states getting ready to adopt this penological practice are Arizona, Florida, Wisconsin, and Michigan. If present trends continue, chain gangs will soon be shuffling from sea to shining sea.

The men in the reinstituted Alabama chain gangs wear leg irons, chained eight feet apart in groups of four. The arrangement, of course, only permits them to move slowly and awkwardly. Their work, under the eyes of guards with shotguns, is to pick up litter along highways or, in time-honored fashion, to break rock piles. The convicts thus employed are from medium-security prisons. Presumably inmates of higher-security prisons are not trusted to be outside even in chains. But this means that the chained prisoners are not your real heavy-duty criminals, like murderers or rapists. The only crime named in a recent story on chain gangs in the Boston Globe was receiving stolen property. An earlier story featured an interview with a man convicted of possession of an illegal drug. In any case, in these medium-security prisons the inmates are not permitted television or telephones, may not exercise with weights, and are allowed coffee on Sundays only. The work on the rock piles leads to frequent injuries. According to inmates, these are commonly ignored. According to the authorities, they are often feigned.

A group of men, most of them black, chained to each other like animals, being marched along dusty country roads to perform meaningless but painful labor: here is an inspiring vignette for the direction taken by the American criminal justice system. It is part and parcel of much broader policies endorsed by politicians of both parties in the name of “getting tough on crime,” and fits well with the accelerating use of the death penalty, the “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” legislation, the new ability of law-enforcement agencies to seize the property of individuals suspected of having ties with organized crime, and most recently (if the Clinton Administration has its way) new powers of these agencies to spy on the citizenry in fighting terrorism. The United States is the only Western democracy employing capital punishment (increasingly in a routine fashion). The United States has the arguably even greater distinction of having the second-largest number of people imprisoned, around one million. China has more in absolute numbers, but as a proportion of the total population, America is number one.

The prison population has been growing rapidly, in large part because of the utterly futile “war against drugs.” It is difficult to estimate the exact numbers here, since they consist not only of people imprisoned for possessing and selling drugs, but of people who committed other crimes to support their drug habits. The “three-strikes” policy has further accelerated the growth of the prison population.

In many institutions, especially in state systems, the overcrowding has meant for some time now that the inmates-or rather, the most vicious inmates-are effectively in charge. Many American prisons are infernos of violence and corruption over which the authorities have little or no control. A young man sentenced to one of these prisons faces the likely prospect of being raped and a reasonable prospect of becoming infected with AIDS. This too is an inspiring vignette of American criminal justice: a sentence of death for a crime like possession of cocaine or a third assault with a dangerous weapon (which in Massachusetts includes kicking somebody with a “shod foot”). On “higher” levels of the prison system, America has now created maximum-security facilities in which inmates are almost completely isolated from human contact, constantly monitored electronically, and shackled during even the briefest trip outside their cells.

Criminal justice in America has for a long time been harsh as compared to its counterparts in Western Europe. Prison sentences have been much longer. Prison conditions have been more unpleasant (except for the Federal system). And the judicial process has been more arbitrary and more weighted against defendants unable to afford an expensive lawyer. There have also been the peculiarly American institutions of the grand jury (usually nothing more than an instrument of the prosecution) and of plea-bargaining (which again puts the greatest pressure on those who cannot afford a good defense). The current changes, however, constitute a large step toward what can only be called barbarism.

These changes are legitimated by two arguments: that, despite their severity, they are necessary to stem the rise in crime; and that they simply correct some of the damage done by soft-hearted liberals who coddled criminals at the expense of the victims of crime.

Both arguments have some merit. The United States does indeed have very high crime rates, probably the highest (accounting for differences in reporting and classification) among advanced industrial democracies. Criminologists are not in agreement as to the reasons for this. The size and cultural characteristics of the American underclass is almost certainly a major reason, as is the American propensity to engage in criminal prosecution of vices that are more tolerated elsewhere (notably, of course, the use of drugs).

The question, however, is whether savagery in the penal process is likely to change this situation. Very probably it will not. A criminally inclined culture is deterred less by the threat of savage reprisals than the likelihood of being caught and convicted-and this likelihood depends on efficient police and courts.

Liberals do indeed bear a good deal of responsibility for undermining the efficiency of both. They have put unnecessary restraints on the police (for example, on the use of force), have been instrumental in making convictions more difficult because of legal technicalities (notably in the matter of admissible evidence), and have generally propagated an ideology of victimization that has encouraged criminals to disclaim personal responsibility because of this or that hurt in their past. The question is whether, to correct the ideological stupidities of mushy social workers, one must now embrace the philosophy of hangmen.

Ronald Jones, the Alabama Commissioner of State Prisons, said to the Globe reporter, “Tell those liberals that the party ended for them last November election.” At least as far as crime is concerned, liberals (with President Clinton in the lead) have evidently concluded that this election adds urgency to the need of demonstrating that they are at least as tough as their conservative opponents. When it comes to fostering the barbarities of criminal justice in the United States today, there is little to choose between Republicans and Democrats (though, perhaps, a sizable constituency of the latter party might want to include “sexual harassment” in the list of capital offenses).

Conservatives should ask themselves whether they want their cause to be linked to the vision of an America in which chain gangs, soundproof isolation cells, and death houses are accepted as routine parts of the social scenery.

Peter L. Berger is a member of the Editorial Board of First Things .