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The Idle Mind

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

It almost goes without saying that the human brain is a remarkable computing machine. It stores everything we’ve ever heard or seen, and can process more than 2 million bits of information per second on average. But with so much potential to impact the world, it is now more important than ever that we as a society do all we can to direct the use of the mind toward constructive activities If left in the wrong hands and for the wrong purposes, the brain’s potential for harm is equally as powerful.

This is why it is a good thing to have structured planned activities for developing minds, so that as their brains develop in capacity, they are also guided to use that capacity to do the right things. One of the amazing functions of the human mind is its ability to learn from the observed behavior of others. That’s why placing positive role models before our children to demonstrate the appropriate use of that intellect can only be beneficial to our society at large. The same is true of individuals who have been incarcerated for illegal activities.

The recidivism rate in U.S. prisons is alarmingly high, especially given the lengthy sentences that the justice system has increasingly given out. One would think that going to jail for a long time would be a deterrent to crime. But the problem is that criminals go into prison, where they are merely warehoused with other criminals, and actually have to become better criminals to survive the environment. Prison should not just be a place to punish people by taking away their freedom. It’s just too expensive an option to house over two million people (roughly the current U.S. incarceration rate), at a cost over $150 billion dollars annually.

The recent Supreme Court case in Brown v. Plata California brought this latest reality home. California was infamous for its ‘three strikes’ law – a punitive measure that many credit with significantly reducing crime in the state over the past 20years. Though the immediate issue in the case was whether prison overcrowding conditions violate prisoners’ constitutional rights – the Court ruled that they do – the real issue was money. California, a state with a huge budget deficit and declining tax revenues, just can’t afford to pay for housing and medical care for such a large prison population. The Supreme Court’s decision paved the way for the California Bureau of Prisons to release over 30,000 ‘non-violent’ prisoners.

People rightly shudder about the potential effects of letting so many criminals out at once. After all, many of these felonshave spent years becoming bigger, better and more menacing criminals. Most of them lack the education, skills and social connections to become productive members of society when they get out.

In many ways, this is where we as a society failed those around us. Sure, we all want crime cleaned up and off our streets. But we can’t just forget about what happens to criminals once they’re put away. For many, it’s a question of “if” not “when” these folks will return to society. And how we treat those individuals while they have nothing but time on their hands is a responsibility that in some measure should fall to us, if we truly care about the long-term implications of their incarceration.

Here is where the value and sheer potency of the human mind once again emerges. These prisoners may have lost their freedoms, but their minds still remain sharp and unharnessed – open to new values we can instill in them.

For years, many social advocacy organizations have urged the government to use precious resources to invest in education rather than prisons. The long run benefits, they argued, greatly outweigh the costs to society. But in the midst of a major drug epidemic, such arguments largely fell on deaf ears. Voters wanted criminals off the street immediately, and were willing to rob the schools to pay for jails. Moreover, in order to lock more people up, prison education, counseling and rehabilitation programs were slashed.

Consider if the opposite had occurred. What if, 20years ago, instead of succumbing to a knee-jerk reaction to crime, we looked at the root causes: idleness; lack of constructive activities for youth; and a dearth of positive role models? What if criminals were subjected to mandatory education and rehabilitation services that gave them the skills and social networks to survive in a legal occupation when they got out?

Let’s be clear: I’m not arguing that we appease criminal behavior here. Some simply cannot be saved nor rescued from the recesses of evil. History is full of those people, where the only place they belong is in a cage. But for each of those hardened animals, there are dozens more showing true potential for reform.

At some point we as a society have to make a rational determination that harnessing positive productive capacity makes more sense than paying an exorbitant price to keep able bodied men, women and even children locked away.

We can no longer afford to look the other way and expect our tax dollars and our leaders to simply lock up our offenders –violent and non-violent – and throw away the key. The case in California shows the folly of such an exercise. We live in different times; modern times that demand more modern approaches to age-old dilemmas. At this juncture in our nation, we should seize every opportunity to increase the opportunity for intellectual good in our society.

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