Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Fuzzy Bunny's Rainbow Paradise

Sorry to disappoint. The title of this entry is a little misleading, but I thought it had more drawing power than, "A Positive Re-framing of Prison Time in American Society." I promise, as a gesture of good faith, to work little Fuzzy Bunny into the narrative.

So I read a short blurb earlier this morning that did a nice job of re-framing the purpose of prison time. It struck me as a really positive way to view what we generally see in purely negative terms. Instead of viewing prison as a punishment for crimes committed, try instead to think of it as a protection for society against repeat offending. That's a powerful distinction because it changes the way we approach the assignment of prison time per offense.

If prison is viewed as a punishment, than every criminal deserves it, even non-violent offenders, and those who commit victimless crimes (drug offenders, for instance.) Prison as punishment satisfies a primal human emotion. The need for retribution. But is retribution the proper emotion to feel when someone is caught smoking a joint, or stealing canned goods from a Shop and Save to feed his or her family?

Prison isn't always the appropriate answer for crime. In fact many soft criminals become much worse in a prison environment. Instead of thinking of prison as society's "pay back" for ill deeds, consider it as a way of protecting society from violent criminals, or people likely to offend again.

Take Fuzzy Bunny for instance, an "enforcer" for a prominent mafia family. His past indicates that, if given the chance, he'd likely kill/maim/cause general mayhem again. So we put him in a cage and lock the door. We don't let him prey on society again. Any convicted violent criminal should be given jail time to keep them safely tucked away from the general population. Same for anyone convicted of a victimed crime that is likely to repeat the offense.

But if prison is intended as a protection and not a punishment, would it be right to lock up victimless crime offenders? No. Not remotely. Putting a drug user in prison protects no one, most especially not the user. Since when has prison been considered a safe place? Nor is it right to lock up petty criminals if it can be demonstrated that, in all likelihood their crime was an isolated event. If, by placing an offender in prison we aren't protecting the rest of society, then prison isn't an appropriate way to deal with the situation.

I read somewhere recently that it costs around $22,000 a year to keep a single prisoner in jail, and that our prisons are horribly over-crowded. Here's what wikipedia has to say about incarceration in the U.S.

The United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world at 738 persons in prison or jail per 100,000 (as of 2005). A report released Feb. 28, 2008 indicates that more than 1 in 100 adults in the United States are in prison.

The U.S. population currently stands at 307,513,000, based on UN estimates as of July 1, 2009. Adults comprise 74% of that population, or 228,182,000. That would put our current prison population at slightly over two and a quarter million people. That's a prison tab of nearly five billion dollars a year! I think a re-framing or our current view of prison would be an extremely positive step for the United States. If, by placing someone in prison we would not be protecting society at large, that person doesn't belong there. Other "punishments", less expensive for the taxpayers, and less damaging for the individual would be appropriate.

And there should be rainbows. A paradise full.

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