Column by Paul Hein.
Exclusive to STR
About three decades ago, I was visiting a friend at the penitentiary in Jefferson City, where he was about at the end of his sentence for the ghastly “crime” of buying cigarettes cheap in a neighboring state, and selling them to his clients in Missouri. It was the practice at the time to allow soon-to-be-released prisoners to have visitors outdoors on the lawn, and many of the prisoners could be seen, visiting with relatives and friends. As we walked about, my friend introduced me to a young man who was, if memory serves, having some snacks with his wife and children. I asked what crime put him in the penitentiary. “Murder,” I was told. It was the first—and last—time that I ever met a murderer face to face. Our meeting was very brief, but the fellow seemed pleasant, was soft spoken and polite, and didn’t come close to fitting the mental picture I had of a murderer. What happened, I learned, was that he had been in a bar, and gotten into some altercation with another patron. One thing led to another, and eventually, in a moment of rage, the young man seized a bottle and hit his antagonist on the head. It was, as it turned out, a fatal blow, and for striking it, this man had spent many years in prison.
“Well,” you might ask, “what’s wrong with that?” I’m not sure anything is “wrong,” but ever since, I’ve wondered about the effectiveness of punishing criminals with prolonged periods of incarceration. Would the murderer I’ve just described murder again were he not in prison? It seems very unlikely. He was older, and almost certainly wiser. On the other hand, having served many years behind bars, would he thus be immune to the temptation to attack again, in a moment of rage? That doesn’t necessarily follow. So what was accomplished by his long stay in the penitentiary?
Some might answer: Justice! OK, but could justice have been achieved in some other way? His time in jail did nothing to assist the family (if any—I don’t know) of the man he had killed. It was no doubt devastating to his own family, though. Qui bono?
Others might justify his sentence on the basis of deterrence. The problem with that is there’s no way to prove it. It’s impossible to know how many people did NOT commit a crime because somewhere, some people were punished for doing it. And, as others have pointed out, if deterrence is the reason for punishment, why not simply round up the convict’s family and friends and shoot them? That would surely be a more effective deterrent than merely putting the offender behind bars! It’s a method used by the Nazis, among others, but, again, there’s no way of knowing how effective it was as a deterrent. The best deterrent, I suppose, would be a conscience alert to the difference between morally right and wrong, but developing such a conscience is a job for the churches, not the courts or prisons. Sadly, many churches today seem more intent on making us feel good about ourselves, and hesitate to deal with such touchy subjects as sin and punishment.
The problem of dealing with criminals, and administering justice, is hardly a new one. People have struggled with it for generations. Punishments were often physical in bygone days. If people were not simply executed, they could be deprived of a hand, or a foot. They could be placed in stocks for a time, thus subject to humiliation and disgrace. The idea of prolonged prison time, in and of itself as punishment, is a rather recent one. Jails have been around for thousands of years, but used mostly to hold those accused of crimes until they could be tried, or, if guilty, until sentence could be carried out.
Today our prisons are filled with prisoners who, in many instances, committed no crime except in disregarding the wishes of the ruling class. The concept of “victimless crime” is oxymoronic. If there is no victim, there is no crime. And when there is a genuine crime, is prolonged incarceration the best way to achieve justice? Note that I didn’t ask if it’s the most profitable way--it almost certainly is that--but if it’s the BEST way. I suspect it is not, and that some form of restitution, rather than incarceration, would be better.