AN ALTERNATIVE FOR PRISON

America's prisons have been called "graduate schools for crime." It
stands to reason: Take a group of people, strip them of possessions and
privacy, expose them to constant threats of violence, overcrowd their
cell-
block, deprive them of meaningful work, and the result is an embittered
underclass more intent on getting even with society than contributing to
it.
Prisons take the nonviolent offender and make him live by violence. They
take the nonviolent offender and make him a hardened killer. America has
to wake up and realize that the current structure of our penal system is
failing terribly. The government has to devise new ways to punish the
guilty, and still manage to keep American citizens satisfied that our
prison
system is still effective.
Americans pay a great deal for prisons to fail so badly. Like all big
government solutions, they are expensive. In the course of my studies
dealing with the criminal justice system, I have learned that the
government spends approximately eighty-thousand dollars to build one cell,
and $28,000 per year to keep a prisoner locked up. That's about the same
as the cost of sending a student to Harvard. Because of overcrowding, it
is
estimated that more than ten-billion dollars in construction is needed to
create sufficient space for just the current prison population. The plain
truth is that the very nature of prison, no matter how humane society
attempts to make it, produces an environment that is inevitably
devastating
to its residents. Even if their release is delayed by longer sentences,
those
residents inevitably return to damage the community, and we are paying
top dollar to make this possible.
Why should tax payers be forced to pay amounts to keep
nonviolent criminals sitting in prison cells where they become bitter and
more likely to repeat their offenses when they are released? Instead, why
not put them to work outside prison where they could pay back the
victims of their crimes? The government should initiate work programs;
where the criminal is given a job and must relinquish his or her earnings
to
the victim of their crime until the mental and physical damages of their
victims are sufficed. A court will determine how much money the criminal
will have to pay for his restitution costs, and what job the criminal will
have
to do to pay back that restitution.
The most obvious benefit of this approach is that it takes care of the
victim, the forgotten person in the current system. Those who experience
property crime deserve more than just the satisfaction of seeing the
offender go to prison. Daniel Van Ness, president of Justice Fellowship,
has said:
All the legal systems which helped form western law
emphasize the need for offenders to settle with victims. The
offense was seen as primarily a violation against the victim.
While the common welfare had been violated and the
community therefore had an interest and responsibility in
seeing that the wrong was addressed and the offender
punished, the offense was not considered primarily a crime
against the state as it is today. (76)
Restitution offers the criminal a means to restore himself-to undergo a
real
change of character. Mere imprisonment cannot do this; nothing can
destroy a man's soul more surely than living without useful work and
purpose. Feodor Dostoevsky, a prisoner for ten years during czarist
repression, wrote, "If one wanted to crush, to annihilate a man utterly,
to
inflict on him the most terrible of punishments...one need only give him
work on a completely useless and irrational character" (77). This is
exactly
what goes on in the "make work" approach of our prisons and it is one of
the contributing factors to prison violence. To quote Jack Kemp, author
of
Crime and Punishment in Modern America:
The idea that a burglar should return stolen goods, pay for
damage to the house he broke into and pay his victims for
the time lost from work to appear at a trial meets with
universal support from the American people. There is, of
course, a reason that the concept of restitution appeals to
America's sense of justice. Restitution also provides an
alternative to imprisonment for nonviolent criminals,
reducing the need for taxpayers to continue building
prisons. (54)
Working with the purpose of paying back someone that has been wronged
allows a criminal to understand and deal with the real consequences of his
actions.
Restitution would be far less expensive than the current system.
Experience shows that the cost per prisoner can be as low as ten percent
of
that of incarceration, depending on the degree of supervision necessary.
Removing nonviolent offenders from prison would also relieve
overcrowding, eliminating the necessity of appropriating billions more
public dollars for prison construction.
Restitution would deter crime with the same effectiveness as prison.
Prisons themselves have not done much of a job