When any costs are compared by the anti-punishment crowd, it is usually a comparison between the costs of imprisonment versus the costs of various programs that promise to prevent crime or to rehabilitate criminals. No doubt promises and theories are cheaper than walls and bars. The only question is whether they are equally effective. But evidence on this is seldom asked or given.
Supposedly those who are against long prison sentences are more compassionate, though there seems to be little of that compassion showered on victims of crime. But, even as regards prisoners, there is a remarkable lack of compassion.
The most hideous aspect of imprisonment is not simply being behind bars. It is being in the power of the strongest and most brutal bullies day and night -- especially night, when dehumanizing sexual assaults are unleashed. The victims may never outlive these traumas, even after their sentences have been served and they are released with their souls permanently scarred.
The most obvious way to reduce such victimization would be to build enough prison capacity to allow each prisoner to have his own cell, where he could spend the night in peace and later walk out of prison with some trace of human dignity left. But no one opposes building more prisons more vehemently than those who are against mandatory sentences.
"We should be building schools instead of prisons!" they cry.
Most people prefer schools to prisons, but then most people prefer airports to cancer wards. Yet no one says: "Why should we be building more cancer wards instead of more airports?" Such rhetoric would be recognized for the cheap and childish thing that it is. It is cheap and childish when it comes to prisons as well.
The anti-imprisonment crusade is moral exhibitionism to score points against "society," not compassion for fellow human beings -- in or out of prison.