'Fairness' in sentencing

Thomas Sowell

8/28/2003 12:00:00 AM - 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.

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.