Enforcing the Law
Unlike most people, I've never really bought into the idea that sending people to jail is an effective way of dealing with crime, and it usually isn't. Indeed, putting people in jail, and keeping them there, is usually more trouble than it's worth. The people who investigate and prosecute crimes do not work for free, nor do the people who run the jails. Someone has to pay them, and someone has to pay for the food and lodging of the million or so people who are currently behind bars. And yet no politician has ever lost an election by promising to put more criminals in jail and/or by promising to keep criminals in jail longer.
For the purposes of this blog post, I will ignore the fact that many people currently in jail or prison are factually innocent of any wrongdoing. Moreover, I will ignore the fact that many people who are currently in jail or prison were convicted of non-violent, victimless crimes. Finally, I will ignore the fact that many innocent people have had their lives ruined by being accused, arrested, and/or tried for crimes that they did not commit. Rather, I will assume, arguendo, that all people who are accused, arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated are as guilty as sin. Needless to say, this is a pretty big assumption.
There is a very popular school of thought which believes that people who are in jail or prison do not deserve to be treated humanely. Rather, people who have broken the laws of society are generally perceived to be sub-human, and their welfare is not usually of concern to law-abiding citizens. This perception changes dramatically when the relative or loved one of a law-abiding citizen ends up behind bars. Such people quickly become advocates for tempering justice with mercy and for establishing proportionality in punishment. Even so, barring the incarceration of a friend or loved one, most people are ready to ignore the inhumane treatment of people in prison because they believe that most of the people who are in prison are truly evil.
Truth be told, there are some truly evil people in the world who probably belong in prison and should probably never be let out. But these people are a stark minority of the million or so people who are currently incarcerated in the United States. And as I noted above, someone has to pay the bill for putting people in jail and keeping them there. I am of the opinion that any expenditure of public funds in this regard should be related to an expected increase in public safety. Otherwise, that money should be spent on some other worthwhile public enterprise.
To be clear, I do not advocate shutting down all the jails and prisons. Incarceration has a role to play in keeping the world safe for law-abiding citizens. However, I was very surprised to learn during my research on the subject of crime and punishment that even if we were to put everyone who was guilty of a crime in jail for a very long time, there would only be a ten percent reduction in crime. Moreover, I was very surprised to learn that most of the people who commit crimes are not driven to crime by brutal economic need. Rather, most people who make money committing crimes have economically viable lives, and - bizarre as it may sound to the typical law-abiding citizen - most criminals use crime as a part-time job to augment the income that they receive from their full-time "9 to 5" job. When these part-time criminals are sent to jail, they are unable to support their families with their full-time jobs, and the families usually end up on some form of public assistance.
In sum, putting criminals behind bars and keeping them behind bars for longer and longer periods of time is a rather ineffective way of enforcing the law. Generally speaking, the cost of incarceration is just too high, and there are seldom any tangible benefits to be obtained. Moreover, as more and more people are put behind bars for longer periods of time, the punitive sting of incarceration becomes less and less of a deterrent to those who might commit crimes. For many people in our society, going to jail has become just "another part of life."
So, if putting criminals in jail doesn't make the streets any safer for polite society, how do we, as law-abiding members of society, keep ourselves safe from criminals? To a large degree, we can't. We can arm ourselves, or hire goons to protect us, but eventually we must come to accept the fact that we are all very, very vulnerable and that "bolts and bars are not the best of our institutions." Rather, honest people are not punished for their sins but by them, and most people who obey the law do so because they believe that it's the proverbial "right thing to do."