By Thomas K. Lowenstein
New Orleans, LA, USA
One of the single most misguided ways we spend money in America today is through our prison system—we lock up far too many people for far too long without any real chance at rehabilitation. Then, when they get out, unrehabbed, as uneducated and unskilled as they were when they went in, we’re shocked when they commit more crime. Then, sometimes, after three convictions (“three strikes”), we make it official and send them away for life.
Thomas K. Lowenstein
I once asked the former head of a major-city Homicide unit, a guy who oversaw maybe 1,000 murder cases, what percentage of those murderers were morons and what percentage were evil. He paused for ten seconds and said, “97% morons.” The point is, the overwhelming majority of murderers don’t have a good motive or a good plan—they just make bad decisions and someone ends up getting killed. And for lesser violent crimes, the process is mostly the same, just without a death at the end.
This doesn’t mean people who commit violent crimes are any less responsible for them or shouldn’t be punished. I think we can all agree that evil people shouldn’t be coddled, they should get what they “deserve.” But without programs in prison to help, say, Joe Robber, he’ll just be released—more than 90% of people in prison will be released some day—and still be the same guy who got himself in there in first place, only harder, more damaged, with even fewer connections to the “straight” world. We should put our resources into programs that help damaged people learn skills to make better choices because the prisoner is who we get when he gets out. If he has skills, education, ties to his family, we’ll have less crime.
But actually looking at crime in terms of what’s best for us as a country, as opposed to just being tough on crime, requires a fundamental change in how we view our prison system. Arguing that our prisons should live up to some idea of justice isn’t helpful—the “tough on crime” folks know justice when they see it and don’t need you to explain it to them. But if you talk about money, you are talking about something we already have on the table. We want our tax money used wisely. And our criminal justice system could be a whole lot more efficient and thereby reduce the real cost of crime.
We need to move past terms like “evil” and “justice” and think of what is best for us as a nation and not what is worst for the people who commit crimes. What is best for us, what is truly “tough on crime,” is preventing crime in the first place. And sometimes that means not being quite so “tough” and narrow-minded about how we “punish” people in prison.
Thomas K. Lowenstein is a writer, journalist, editor, and policy strategist. With a special interest in helping those wrongly convicted of a crime and in campaigning against the death penalty, he has worked tirelessly to focus attention on inequities in the American criminal justice system. Born in New York, educated in Boston, Mr. Lowenstein now lives in New Orleans with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel, THE GHOST DETECTIVE.