Friday, January 25, 2013

Locking Up The Neighbors

This week the South Dakota Senate made a good decision for a bad reason.  The Senate approved a welcome set of changes to the way the state treats convicted criminals, effectively reducing prison sentences for a variety of offenses.

South Dakota's prisons are nearly full to capacity, and the state was forced to choose between building more prisons and reforming its sentencing laws.  The latter choice was the less expensive one, and that appears to be the main reason for the reform.

I've read that in the USA we now have more prisoners than farmers.  I'm also told we have more prisoners than any other country in the world, and a much higher per-capita incarceration rate than any other developed country.   Either we produce more criminals than other countries, or we are more aggressive in our incarceration policies.

I've argued before that our criminal code should not be devised along economic lines, but along the lines of love.  Jens Soering similarly argues forcefully that our prisons are "an expensive way to make bad men worse."

We don't need to make men worse but to give them every opportunity to better themselves. 

I'm not saying we shouldn't be tough on crime; we should be very tough on crime.  But our current policies are not so much tough on crime as they are tough on criminals.

What I am saying is this: we should not regard criminals as people with a past but as people with a future.  Many need to be incarcerated, yes, but if a man is to be locked up, let us lock him up as a neighbor.  As they enter the prisons, let it be our first and guiding thought that they will soon emerge as our neighbors.  And let us therefore do all we can to allow them to emerge as better men and women, not as worse ones.


UPDATE:  I did not know it at the time, but as I was writing this post above, a family in my city was pleading with a judge to have mercy on the man who killed one of their family members.  Their words, which you can read here, show a remarkable ability to look past their desire for vengeance and exemplify concern for the criminal.  It is possible.  It is possible.  It is possible.

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