America has to wake up and realize that the current structure of our penal system is failing terribly. Take a group of people, strip them of possessions and privacy, expose them to constant threats of violence, overcrowd their cell-block, deprive them of meaningful work, and the result is an embittered underclass more intent on getting even with society than contributing to it. There is a better way to deal with crime and punishment in America.
Americans pay too much money for prisons to fail so badly. Like many big government solutions, prisons are expensive. In the Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1997, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates the total cost for our judicial system for 1993. That year, the United States had 1,364,881 adult jail and prison inmates. Based on this information, the cost per inmate for corrections, judicial, legal, and police costs totaled $ 71,467 per inmate. That is about the same as the cost of sending a student to a four-year college. Due to overcrowding, more than ten billion dollars in construction is needed to create sufficient space for just the current prison population. “Building more prisons to address crime is like building more graveyards to address a fatal disease.” (Robert Gangi, Executive Director, Correctional Association of New York)
Prisons take the nonviolent offender and make him live in the same conditions that a hardened killer would have. The very nature of prison, no matter how humane society attempts to make it, produces an environment that is inevitably harmful to its residents. Even by delaying release by longer sentences, residents will eventually return to damage the community.
Society is paying the bill for this injustice to go on. Not including Federal Funds, states spent $28.9 billion on corrections in 1997 alone. To compare, the states only spent $14.0 billion on welfare to the poor (National Association of State Budget Officers 1997). Why should we force taxpayers to pay to keep nonviolent criminals sitting in prison cells where they become bitter and more likely to repeat their offenses when released? The government must devise new ways to punish the guilty, and still manage to keep American citizens satisfied that our justice system is effective.
Instead, why not put non violent criminals to work in restitution programs outside prison where they could pay back the victims of their crimes? In 1995, only 13% of all state prisoners were violent offenders (US Department of Justice Report, “Prisoners in 1996”). The government should initiate work programs; where the criminal receives a task and must relinquish his or her earnings to the victim of their crime until the mental and physical damages of their victims are satisfied. A court will determine how much money the criminal will have to pay for his restitution costs, and what job the criminal will have to do to pay back that restitution. The most obvious benefit of this approach is that it takes care of the victim, the forgotten person in the current system. Where locking people up fails, restitution offers the criminal a means to make a real change of character. Nothing can destroy a man’s intellect more
surely than living without useful productive work and purpose. By providing an alternative to imprisonment for nonviolent criminals, restitution reduces the
need for taxpayers to continue building prisons. Working with the purpose of paying back their victim allows a criminal to understand and deal with the real consequences of his or her actions. Furthermore, restitution would be far less expensive than the current system. The cost per prisoner can be as low as ten percent of that of incarceration, depending on the degree of supervision necessary. If we initiate this form of justice for the lesser offender, our prisons will have the vacancies to incarcerate the Jeffery Dahmers of the world in prison for life.
Jack Kemp, author of Crime and Punishment in Modern America said, “The idea that a burglar should return stolen goods, pay for damage to the house he broke into and pay his victims for the time lost from work to appear at a trial meets with universal support from the American people.” The concept of restitution appeals to America’s sense of justice.
Restitution would deter crime with at least as much effectiveness as prison. Restitution programs would greatly reduce the incidence of further crime, since they restore a sense of individual responsibility, making the offender less likely to commit crimes. Moreover, better suited to adjust to society when their sentence is over. It is not so much the type of punishment that deters crime, but rather the certainty of punishment.
With respect to deterrence, almost any sanction that is received quickly and surely will have a deterrent effect. An effective and aggressively run restitution program would be a greater deterrent than the threat of
imprisonment. The certainty of restitution, by requiring payment, takes the profit out of crime.
Many Americans believe in our current prison system, and believe that it is an effective form of punishment for the criminal. Some people say that criminals can live decent, civilized lives in prison and graduate to decent civilized lives in the free world. How can criminals live civilized lives in an environment that only offers them discord and mild forms of anarchy? Most inmates learn little of value during their confinement behind bars, mostly because they adapt to prison in immature and often self-defeating ways. As a result, they leave prison unimproved, and sometimes considerably worse than when they went in.
Crime is the result of morally responsible people making poor moral decisions, for which we must hold offenders accountable. They have broken the law; they have hurt others. If we do not insist that those who commit crimes responsible for their actions, we begin a slide into anarchy. Nevertheless, the offender can be held responsible in many ways. It is in our best interest to find those ways that heal wounds, not cause new ones. Let us not kid ourselves any longer, prisons were never designed to cure the individual; they exist to lock him up.