I am one of those people that views prison as something that should be a last resort rather than a first and something that should be reserved only for those who cannot live in society. House arrest, or other restrictions can be used instead. Even though electronic tracking devices aren’t foolproof I would rather have the occasional error than toss everyone in prison. There are approximately 1,330,000 people in state prisons, 630,000 in municipal jails, 197,000 in federal prisons, and 34,000 juveniles in detention centers. 1 in 5 people in prison are locked up for drug offenses. Prison and execution are the two ultimate acts of the state. I submit that they should be reserved rather than doled out like candy. Judges should have the power to decide on sentencing rather than be forced to mandatory minimums.
There is a prison reform bill moving through Congress. Trump has said he will sign it if passed. The bill will have the immediate effect of releasing 4000 federal prisoners. “The bill would also expand compassionate release, giving elderly and terminally ill inmates a path home, and invest tens of millions in re-entry programs. It would also end the shackling of women giving birth behind bars and provide them with necessary hygiene items at no charge.”
Trump said something I agree with, “Nobody wins when former prisoners fail to adjust to life outside or worse, end up back behind bars. We want former inmates to find a path to success so they can support their families and support their communities.”
It will take more than just this bill to do that.
Perhaps some of you reading have been in prison, or worked in a prison as a detention officer. My own work has taken me inside a few times, just for a few hours at a time. Having experienced that over the years, having spoken with prisoners, getting to know them, I am certain that many of them belong there, but I’m equally certain many of them don’t. We are not discriminating in our choice of who we rob of their liberty – and that’s how I believe we should think of it.
If we are going to – as a society – force a person into a box and a system wherein they have few rights at all we better darn well be sure.
But sure of what?
Some will answer that by saying, “we should be sure they deserve it.”
That seems like a reasonable answer but I don’t think it’s correct. I think the measure of putting someone into prison shouldn’t be revenge or punishment. If a person cannot be trusted to respect the rights of others that’s when prison becomes the only option. Someone who has a brick of weed just isn’t that person. That accounts for 1 in 5 of the people in jail. While 4000 released would be a good start 1/5th of the prison population is about 438,800 people. A large city’s worth of people. How many children with out fathers does that number represent?
Clearly someone who rapes, assaults, murders or kidnaps is dangerous to have in society. Those people violate the rights of others. In a society based on rights that’s the cardinal rule – don’t violate rights!
It’s easy when what we are talking about is murder. That’s a violation of the right to life. Taking that takes all other rights from a person. To me such reform becomes complicated when dealing with property rights. For me that’s the levels of complexity. Crimes that harm no one, easy. Crimes that kill or harm terribly, easy. Crimes of property though, for me that is complex. Someone who steals a candy car has violated someone’s property rights. As a society we generally agree that person doesn’t belong in prison. At what point do they? After stealing three candy bars? Three strikes, you’re out!
What about a car thief? Does it matter if the car is returned in good shape? The stole it, but the loss of property was temporary. Is that the same as if they crash it? I ask these questions of myself, and anyone else who cares to answer them. If we want prison reform then we have to get to a point where we decide that some people who commit a crime won’t go to jail. The trick is figuring out where that line is. I think at this point in our history we’ve clearly crossed that line. I don’t believe that 2 million people should be locked up at any given time.
If we don’t lock them up, then how to we convey that their behavior is unacceptable?
If I had my way we would exile people. Kick them right out of the country. If you can’t respect our laws and the rights of your fellows then you don’t get to live here. But we live in a world where that kind of thing just doesn’t work. We have a general system where crimes get you locked up and civil violations get you a fine. Though that isn’t universal in municipalities it generally is the case. What if crimes were punished with fines instead of jail? Perhaps the guilty could perform service of some kind. Community service is a thing right now but what about service to the person actually wronged by the act? Would it be appropriate if they can’t pay the fine to go and mow the lawn?
There are a lot of questions there. I don’t have all the answers of course. I just know something should be done because locking people up is a very serious thing to do and we should not feel glee at doing it. There should be no shouts, dripping in tones of vengeance, “lock him up!” Rather a measured sigh, “I guess we have no choice but to lock him up”. See the difference there? It’s not just one of tone, but one of essence. I believe we are a healthier society, and better human beings, if we don’t advocate for wholesale incarceration but rather seek, even when someone runs afoul of things, to protect their liberty as much as we can by knowing which crimes really require a person be locked away and which ones don’t.
Donald Trump on Friday promised to sign bipartisan prison reform legislation currently working its way through Congress that could free thousands of prisoners. “My administration strongly supports these efforts and I urge the House and Senate to get together … work out their differences [and] get a