After two decades of being "tough on crime" by "locking them up and throwing away the key" - to recall two of the effective political slogans of the past - the bill has come due. Many states have become incapable or unwilling to pay the cost of housing record numbers of inmates. Twenty-five states have already passed laws easing or eliminating the minimum sentencing requirements that were politically popular in the 1980s and '90s. They are also considering early parole for nonviolent, non-dangerous offenders to ease overcrowding and the cost of warehousing so many convicts.
Joseph Lehman, secretary of the state of Washington Department of Corrections, told the New York Times (Nov. 10) that the people behind liberalizing the tough laws "are not all advocates of a liberal philosophy." Indeed, they are not. I am one of them.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the U.S. prison and jail population exceeded 2 million for the first time in June, 2002. By the end of last year, 33,000 more inmates had been added to the total. That means one out of every 142 residents is incarcerated in this country. The average cost to states per inmate per day is $57.92, according to the 2000 Corrections Yearbook. In Georgia, where about 35,000 citizens are behind bars, it costs taxpayers more than $20,000 per year per inmate and each jail cell costs $60,000 to build.
What are taxpayers getting for their money? They get a false sense of security, as if putting current criminals behind bars insures there won't be future criminals. If locking up everyone now committing crimes would eliminate crime, I'd be all for it, but new criminals are born, or made, every day. Something is wrong with the system.
Violent and dangerous offenders should be locked up and, in capital cases, executed. But violent offenders are just 49 percent of the prison population. Again, according to BJS, the rest of the prisoners are behind bars for property crimes (19 percent), drug crimes (20 percent) and crimes affecting the "public order" (11 percent). This half of the prison population ought to be doing something else besides sitting in prison and costing the law-abiding money.
We do retribution well. We should be focusing on restitution.
If I steal your TV set, putting me in prison won't get it back. Making me pay a fine to the government (whose TV set was not stolen) won't restore your set, unless you have a very low deductible on your homeowner's insurance, which will undoubtedly go up if you file a claim. It would be better if the law required me to work to earn the money to buy you a new TV set and to pay you, not the government, a fine for your inconvenience and trouble. I should also be forced to pay court costs.
Such an approach would have a number of benefits. First, you would get your TV back. The victim should always be the law's primary concern. Second, forcing me to acknowledge that I have wronged a person and not the state (which is a non-person) can help change my view of other people's property. Third, it would save taxpayers the cost of incarcerating me. And, fourth, making me pay the person I have wronged is a far better and more proven method for changing my life and behavior than putting me in prison where statistics show I am more likely to become a better criminal than a better citizen.
If the objective of criminal laws is to reduce crime, the laws currently on the books are clearly not achieving it. The corporate monsters who rob stockholders and employees of their jobs and careers shouldn't go to jail. They should be forced to work to pay off as much as they possibly can to those they have wronged. That is redemptive for them, and it is restorative to the victims who lost their retirement and their paychecks to greed.
Republicans, who were behind many of these "tough on crime" laws, have an opportunity to fight crime in ways that will actually work and save the taxpayers lots of money. That is supposed to be the Republican way. It is certainly the only way that will succeed.
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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