Are more prisons, tougher sentencing and mandatory jail time the answers to the crime problem we have in America today?
I admit, I once thought so. Not any more. Not by a long shot.
Just 25 years ago, there were fewer than 250,000 men and women in American prisons. Today there are more than 2 million.
Has crime fallen? No, not really.
You will hear some statistics that suggest the trend is down, especially for property and violent crimes. Even so, any progress achieved by the temporary lockup of offenders is overshadowed by the consequences of what prison does to inmates.
Prisons are universities for criminals.
The truth is that almost all prisoners are going to be released some day. And, under the current criminal university system, when they are they are better crooks, better killers and better equipped not to get caught.
The recidivism rate is around 70 percent. Do the math: When those 2 million prisoners hit the streets again, 1.4 million of them are not only going to commit new crimes, they are going to get caught for their crimes.
Let’s face it, we all know that most crime does pay – at least in the short term. Most criminals do not get caught the first or even second time they commit an offense. That means our prisons today are merely breeding grounds for millions of new offenses yet to be perpetrated on the public.
“The huge prison bulge may temporarily slow down crime, as it apparently has, but as offenders are released, the number of new crimes can be expected to skyrocket,” explains Charles Colson in his new book, “Justice That Restores.”
It’s kind of like what we do with the federal deficit – pass along the real costs of our excesses and mistakes to our children. This approach just doesn’t work in the long term.
What is the answer, then?
Colson suggests, and I agree, that we need to examine the real root causes of crime. It’s not about poverty, as some suggest. It’s about morality – a sense of right and wrong. That’s a concept we have retreated from in America in recent times.
We are reaping the whirlwind of cultural decay.
When you see the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups attacking the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms in this country, you are witnessing a dramatic example of that attack on moral absolutes and a headlong rush toward moral relativism.
There are indeed absolutes, and we all know it. It’s wrong to kill, and it’s wrong to steal. The basis for that understanding is the Ten Commandments. Like it or not, that’s the source for our common consensus on right and wrong. It’s time to stop pretending that you can have morality apart from such common denominators that serve as the very basis for our societal compact.
But the problem with criminal justice in America today is even more specific than that.
Why do we lock people up for crimes? To punish them. Nobody truly believes it is a matter of rehabilitation any more.
Surely there are people so depraved, so corrupt, so dangerous to society that they need to be removed from society – people like the fictional Hannibal Lecter. In a just society, those people should be executed. Period. End of story. What purpose does it serve to incarcerate them where they are a potential danger to other prison guards and always a risk to escape?
For the rest – and the overwhelming majority of prisoners – it’s time to consider a completely new approach. And there are some excellent experimental programs under way that show promising results.
I’m talking about what Colson calls “restorative justice.” I’m talking about restitution.
When you are victimized in some way, what good does it do to lock up the perpetrator where he continues to burden society with the heavy costs of incarceration in prisons with television sets, three squares a day, air-conditioning, workout rooms, etc.?
I think the criminal should be compelled by the state, working in partnership with organizations like Colson’s Justice Fellowship, to make restitution to their victims. To the best of their ability, they need to make their victims whole. That may mean working for them. That may mean paying them off. That may mean a host of different things depending on circumstances.
But the amazing side impact of such programs is the restorative impact they have on the criminal. And that means, not only will there be real justice served, but there will be fewer victims in the future.
I commend Colson’s book to you. This is a great starting point for the great debate we need to have in this country regarding crime and punishment.