Thomas Sowell

For more than two centuries, the political left has crusaded against the punishment of criminals. Anyone familiar with history can find 18th century writers saying the same things that today's critics, politicians, judges and the ACLU are saying about how terrible it is to lock people up or to execute them.

The latest ploy is to say how "unfair" mandatory sentences are. Can we all get together -- people of every race, color, creed, national origin, political ideology and sexual preference -- and agree, once and for all, that life is unfair? Then we can move on to a serious, adult discussion of what alternatives are available, at what price, and who is to pay those prices.

The purpose of a criminal justice system is not to be fair. Its purpose is to protect law-abiding people from criminals. There is no need to be unfair but, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said: "It is desirable that the burden of all should be equal, but it is still more desirable to put an end to robbery and murder."

The left has never really recovered from the fact that, after their theories about "root causes" of crime from the 1960s were finally abandoned in the 1980s, and we belatedly started locking up more people for longer periods of time, crime rates began falling for the first time in decades. Liberals have certainly never asked how many crime victims could have been spared violence and murder if their ideas had never been listened to in the first place.

A typical argument against mandatory sentencing in a recent issue of the New York Times began in typical fashion by mentioning a man who "stole a $16 bicycle" and will now spend the rest of his life in prison. Then comes the admission that he "had a five-year history of burglaries," and the caveat "none of them involving violence."

So we are not really talking about stealing a bicycle, after all. We are talking about a career criminal being taken off the street. Like so many arguments against taking career criminals off the streets permanently, this one quotes some "expert" as saying that the "cost of prison is quite high."

What about the cost of leaving career criminals out on the streets? Estimates of that are pretty high too, just in economic terms, not counting such incidental considerations as living in fear or dying in pain. But the anti-punishment people do not want to count that cost, much less weigh it against the cost of keeping criminals behind bars.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate