'Crime and Punishment' - Is there another way?
Is there a Problem?
Why do we lock people up? For some people the answer is quite obvious but our prisons are filled up with many whose threat level towards society is dubious to say the least. Many are locked up simply because they got caught smoking a joint, others for things like evading parking tickets. I once saw a video of police setting up a 'sting' operation to capture and arrest people who had evaded parking tickets and I remembered thinking to myself 'They got 10 cops working this sting just to capture a couple of grannies with outstanding parking tickets – is this really a good use of police resources?'
But yet, whenever the government or legal society or police force talk about 'preventing crime' they always fall back on the tried and untrue method of locking people up for extraordinary lengths of time. Has it ever worked? I'm not talking about the murderers or child predators we lock up for life. It works for them cause we never intend to let them back out again, but what about the thieves and small time drug dealers we lock up? Does it work for them? Never seems to prevent these types from selling drugs and stealing property again so ... why do we keep thinking that the key to prevent crime is to lock people up longer and longer?
The Current System
Do you think the current system of punishment is worth the expense?
Locking people up is extremely expensive to the society as a whole. It costs an average of $31,307 to incarcerate one individual per year of incarceration. There are roughly 2.4 million prisoners in the United States today. That's the highest concentration of prisoners per national population in the world. It is estimated that fully 25% of all the world's prisoners are Americans in American prisons. Make no mistake about it, the taxpayer and the taxpayer alone foots the entire cost of this on an annual basis. When you do the math it is something like 206 million dollars a day to keep the prison system running in the US alone. You can outsource it all to a private corporation or you can get the government to run it exclusively but, in the end, the taxpayer will always pay for this system.
In exchange for this investment we get repeat offenders committing offences with escalating degrees of seriousness and threat to society as a whole. Does this sound like a good return? Doesn't make sense to me either. So, how do we correct this? Obviously we need to find some other method of punishing criminals, especially non-threatening petty criminals, other than locking them up to the tune of $31,307.00 a year.
Jail for Traffic Offenses?
How do you think basic traffic offenses should be punished?
Jail for traffic offenses? Seriously?
Perhaps it requires a rethinking of exactly what constitutes a 'serious crime' in today's society. Refer back to the beginning of this hub and ask yourself 'Is there another way?'. I think there is. Most western societies require motorists to have registration for their vehicles and driver's licenses. Many of them also require the motorist to be insured against accidents. Access to all of these services can simply be denied as long as there are outstanding violations or fines to be paid. This method removes the local police force from ever having to pursue an individual for any outstanding or unpaid traffic violation of any type again. It also removes the requirement to lock up the serious traffic offenders as a simple denial of services will 'inspire' a more prompt payment schedule 99% of the time.
Anyone using a vehicle for violent purposes, impaired driving or other seriously threatening behaviour involving a vehicle would of course have to punished accordingly but traffic offences should not require police involvement beyond initial issue of the violation. When the police come across improperly documented drivers they impound the vehicle. Simple, this does not have to happen too many times to change behaviour and it is a very inexpensive form of enforcement. Fine revenues start coming in on a more regular basis and, lets face it, that means less for the general taxpayer to pay out. Better way all around.
What is the point of punishment?
What format should 'punishment' for small time, petty crimes take?
Petty offenses and first timers - Applying something different - the younger the better.
If you want to change behavior then the earlier you catch the behavior you wish to change and applying any corrective measures the better your chances of actually changing the behavior. Any parent knows this. Why we 'take it easy' on juvenilles and then come down hard when they hit the legal age is a anomoly I will never understand. We should seriously be considering some alternatives in our punishment system.
As soon as an offender hits a certain age (I say 17 - but this is debatable) they should be considered for periods of service as punishment. Periods of service, either to the specific community or to the nation state as a whole, were very effective at changing negative social behavior as well as providing guidance on what, exactly, the socially acceptable behaviors are. I say 'were' because such sentences don't seem to be in fashion as much anymore. In fact I do not think they happen at all in North America.
That's too bad. Years ago, when I was a serving member of the Canadian Army, I served with guy who had been 'sentenced' to a minimum period of three years of military service, instead of prison, for some petty theft or whatever. That three years turned a petty thief, on his way to repeated stays in the Canadian prison system, into a tax paying serving member of society. His military career lasted almost 30 years and he saw service all over the world. He never stole from his neighbours again.
Isn't that a much better ending? Seems to me that this is a lot more beneficial than constantly locking up guys like this over and over again until finally we have had enough and lock them up for life. I wonder how many of the veterans we honor in our societies today started out as petty thieves and small time hoodlums?
I am not saying you give an offender one of the nicest military jobs there are. The options as far as type of service would be limited to something appropriate. If it seems I am favoring a very specific type of 'service' - well I am. Most young and first time offenders lack discipline and direction, this is the primary reason for the offense to begin with, and for any gang affiliations as well. Providing that discipline can be done best by the military. Canada or the US or anywhere else in the western world this will be true.Other forms of service lack the ability to instil the missing discipline the offender will need to prevent further offenses and these types of services should be reserved for older first time offenders where military service would be inappropriate or unviable.
Labor camps? Seriously?
Do you think it is right to use prisoners for forced labor?
How should prisoners be used?
Do you think corporations should be giving jobs to inmates?
Not all 'services' are good services.
Most of the job services or other forms of services supposedly designed to help 'reform ' the inmate are not very effective at all and should be avoided. Too often we see stories in the media about local authorites trying this or that type of 'camp' or job program and we all think it's just great, for the most part, but what reformative value do these types or arrangements really have?
Labour camps run by law enforcement officials and local sheriffs do not have the same effect that a period of military service would. These types of camps are sometimes seen in the American southern states. The problem with these camps is they fail to instil a long term sense of discipline the petty criminal is lacking to begin with, thus leading to petty crime. The petty criminal has no respect for law enforcement, he may have fear, but not respect. Fear only works when it is constantly maintained. Once the sheriff is no longer watching, the negative behaviour returns. A military service, for example, removes the fear of law enforcement and, basically for most of these types, replaces it with a completely unknown environment. This environment will be better able to instil a proper sense of discipline over the long term and will be able to build a relationship of respect, not based on fear, with the petty criminal that could very well turn the individual's life around completely.
Giving regular jobs to inmates isn't a very good idea either. Did you ever hear the stories of call centers being setup in jails and prisons to 'help the inmates adjust'? Seems like a form of slavery to me. I mean, you don't have to pay these inmates even minimum wage because they are inmates and do the inmates really get a choice regarding if they even want to do the job or not? These types of jobs, performed in prisons, offer no real 'rehabilitation value' as far as changing the patterns of thought and therefore changing the unwanted behaviour of the petty criminal. Not to mention the fact that giving inmates these types of jobs denies those jobs to people on the streets, ex-con or otherwise, trying to live an honest life in a bad economy with few or no jobs. Does it make sense to give these jobs to inmates? What kind of message does that send?
No, we should think long and hard about the long term effects these types of programs have and the long term cost, eventually to the tax payer, these programs can generaate. They are usually not worth the expense.
Do prisons work?
Do you think short term prison sentences are an effective way to prevent a recurrance of crime?
So What are prisons for?
Prisons should be reserved for serious threats to society in general and we should be very specific when determining the level of threat. We need to lock up the murderers, rapists and child predators, these are serious threats to society as a group. Do we really need to lock up car thieves, petty, non-violent drug dealers and property thieves and various other 'nuisance' criminals? Seems excessive and wasteful to do it this way.
There should be two tiers of punishment in a society in my opinion and they should be divided along very simple lines. The categories are simple. On one side you have 'Yes we can release them again' and on the other you have 'No these ones need to stay behind bars for a very long time'. Any individual committing a crime involving a threat of violence or harm, or actual act of violence or harm, to another human being is a tier two candidate. The rest are tier ones. Once you have the prisoner population sorted into one of these two tiers you can then determine the best way to get tier one out of the legal system and back into the tax paying revenue generating portion of the population and tier two can be locked away from doing more harm to society. Prisons can then be designed specifically to house tier twos and provide whatever services someone with a long term sentence needs and a society would need far less medium and minimum security institutions required for incarceration of less serious threats.
Should we stay the course?
Do you think mandatory prison sentences do anything to prevent a recurramce of crime?
But instead ...
Yes, it seems we have some very strange and expensive ideas when it come to the punishment side of 'Crime and Punishment'.
The less incarceration, the greater the benefit to the society as a whole as long as the alternative gets the job done. Most minor criminal behaviour, such as ignoring the fines for traffic violations, the example that started my ramblings to begin with, can be altered or seriously discouraged by a simple denial of services, this requires no police at all, never mind 'sting operations designed to incarcerate grandma'. Other non-violent but more serious negative behaviour can be corrected (rather than punished) by other forms of service to the society being wronged.
Do we really want to lock up some petty thief for 5 years or so then release him only to have a criminal record for the rest of their life that we keep bringing up and throwing in the individual's face every time they try to do something honest, like get a job? What message is society sending here?
In a free society that values the concept of 'innocent until proven guilty' we must understand that the concept of 'crime prevention' is kinda irrelevant. I mean, the only thing we can do to truly prevent crime is ensure that the punishment alters the criminal behaviour for those that can be safely released or, if the criminal behaviour is truly a threat, that incarceration is done in the most expedient and secure means possible according to the rules governing the treatment of prisoners within our society.
Is that what we are doing now? I wonder ...
Some Interesting Reading
- Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) - Local Government Corrections Expenditures, FY 2005-2011
- Price of Prisons - What Incarceration Costs Taxpayers
Published by the Vera Institute of Justice
© 2014 Robin Olsen