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Crime and Prisons

March 02, 1994

* Before we start building prisons (at a cost of some $100,000 per cell) to launch a new offensive in the "war on crime," let's consider the effectiveness of prisons. In fact, let's examine the whole concept of "crime and punishment."

Why do we put people in prison when they violate the law? It seems to me that there are four main reasons:

1) "That'll teach 'em a lesson." The presumption here is that by putting a criminal in prison for a portion of his life, large or small, we give him an opportunity to reflect upon his behavior so that when he comes out, he'll be a decent, law-abiding citizen. Result: At any given time, about two-thirds of those in prison have been there before. This doesn't work!

2) "We've got to protect the public!" This works, but only for the time the criminal is in prison. To really accomplish this goal, we need to give every felon a life sentence.

3) "The mental well-being of the victims." To put it another way, it's vengeance, revenge.

4) "Prisons send a message." Nearly every society in human history has relied upon prisons to serve as a deterrent to crime. But the crime rate still keeps rising now. So either not enough people are getting the message, or the message has no meaning. It's true that we cannot count the crimes that were not committed because the criminal was deterred by the thought of prison. But plenty are being committed despite the "message."

Prisons are very expensive, and so are prisoners. Maybe it's time we tried something different, whether it is compulsory "boot camp," psychological counseling, whatever. What we really want to do is to change the behavior of those who commit crimes.

And prisons are failing to do this.


Corona del Mar

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