AN ALTERNATIVE FOR PRISON
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 the citizens satisfied that our prison system is still effective.
We 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 Rs. 4 lakhs to build one cell, and Rs.280000 per year to keep a prisoner locked up. That’s about the same as the cost of sending a student to IIM. Because of overcrowding, it is estimated that more than Rs. 10000 crore in constructions 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.
Restitution offers the criminal a means to restore him-self-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, and to inflict on him the most terrible of punishments…one need only give him work on a completely useless and irrational character”. 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 Modem 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 people. There is, of course, a reason that the concept of restitution appeals to India’s sense of justice. Restitution also provides an alternative to imprisonment for nonviolent criminals, reducing the need for taxpayers to continue building prisons.
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 when it comes to deterrence. Nations with the highest incarceration rates often have the highest crime rates. But studies of model restitution programs demonstrate that they greatly reduce the incidence of further crime, since they restore a sense of individual responsibility, making the offender more likely to be able to adjust to society. Reducing recidivism is the most direct way to reduce crime.
Criminal justice authorities also tell us that it is not so much the type of punishment that deters crime, but rather the certainty of punishment. With respect to deterrence, virtually any sanction, imposed swiftly and surely, has a deterrent effect. An effectively run restitution program will deter crime. It is believed that in many cases, aggressive restitution programs would be a greater deterrent than the threat of prison.
To quote author David Simon, I remember talking in prison with a hardened convict who had spent nineteen of his thirty-eight years locked up. He was in for a heavy narcotics offense that drew a mandatory life sentence. “How in the world could you have done it?” Simon asked. “I used to be a rod carrier,” the convict answered, “on the World Trade Center building-eighty floors up, getting eighteen dollars an hour. One misstep and I was dead. With hash I could make $300,000 a week. One misstep and I was in prison. Better odds.”
The immediate payoff of crime is so great that many are willing to risk prison. The certainty of restitution, by requiring payment, takes the profit out of crime. The assets of organized crime members and big time narcotics dealers, for example, could be seized at arrest and confiscated on conviction, with the offender ordered to make further restitution through work programs. That is real punishment.
Many people believe in our current prison system, and also believe that it is an effective form of punishment for the criminal. Some would say that criminals can live decent, civilized lives in prison and graduate to decent, civilized lives in the free world. My question to these people is; how can criminals live civilized lives in an environment that only offers chaos and mild forms of anarchy? It is well known what goes on behind closed doors in prison; terrible atrocities that make the blood boil and the stomach curdle are the only thing these prisoners are accustomed to while they are in prison. Most inmates learn little of value during their confinement behind bars, mostly because they adapt to prison in immature and often self-defeating ways. As a result, they leave prison no better-and sometimes considerably worse-than when they went in. The first time offender who is arrested for burglary does not belong in a prison where the only thing he will learn is how to become a better and more violent burglar. Instead, why not make him pay restitution to the store owner whom he robbed? In my opinion, if this form of punishment was initiated for the lesser offender, our prisons will have the vacancies to incarcerate the Jeffery Dahmers of the world in prison for life, instead of the infamous “ten to twenty, out in five”.
Crime is the result of morally responsible people making wrong moral decisions, for which they must be held accountable. The just and necessary response to such behavior is punishment, which may include restitution for community service, stiff fines, or, in cases where the offender is dangerous, prison. But let’s not kid ourselves any longer. The prison was not designed to cure the individual; it was made to lock him up.