Prisons Are for Reducing Crime, Not Revenge-The Libertarian View

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America’s criminal justice system reflects the same problems that other government programs do.

As with education, it operates to create and maintain its budgets and unionized payrolls.


In California the prison guards union is the largest PAC funder of political campaigns. Of course, the candidates they fund support longer sentences and the building of more prisons.

In Hawaii, the discussion to build a new prison on the Big Island brought out economic arguments.

Published statements by the then Public Safety Director discussed the benefits to Big Islanders of the spending to be done in building and maintaining the prison. This is no more than the old fallacy of the broken window that Henry Hazlitt opened “Economics in One Lesson” with in 1946.

Prisons are not investments. They are not economic boons. They are necessary evils. They drain labor and capital from the private sector.

Other than the small return on prison labor they do not produce usable goods and services for consumption.

They lock up potentially productive people for years, often on questionable rationales.

They cannot and should never be promoted for the reasons of creating jobs in the construction or corrections industries.

As with education the national debate over corrections and incarceration is muddled by a lack of understanding and consensus on basic points.

In few areas are the politics of hate, fear, and ignorance more pandered to than here. Americans are bombarded daily by images of vicious crime and angry politicians. The “revolving door” and lenient judges are favorite targets. The need to punish, punish, punish is planted deep into the cultural thinking. Little thought or discussion is left for fundamental questions of basic goals.

I suggest that the purpose of a correctional system is to protect lives and property.

A system that leads to an increase in the number of people robbed, assaulted, and killed is a bad one. This is true no matter how satisfied with it are law enforcement, corrections workers, or revenge junkies.

I do not believe the government, any government, has the moral authority to judge and to punish. Prisons should exist simply to keep dangerous people out of society and to serve as a deterrent to others. Our system errs in its punitive approach. Such an approach panders to public anger, but ultimately undermines the public good.

America has over 2 million people incarcerated. In Hawaii the numbers have more than tripled in 20 years and will increase by more than 50 percent in the next ten years if predictions are correct.

Much of the increase is due to longer and longer sentences including mandatory minimums set by statute.

One has to realize that the deterrent function of incarceration is made up not simply of the length of the sentence but in the likelihood of one. One person in jail for five years uses the same resources as five persons for one year.

Longer sentencing as a deterrent is not effective if it means four out of five law breakers go free.

In America over 70 percent of former inmates under the age of 30 recommit crimes soon after their release. This doesn’t sound good. America’s prisons are not designed to reduce repeat offenses. They are dangerous places ruled by prison gangs. Drugs, rape, and violence are commonplace. The fear of other inmates is shamelessly used by the criminal justice system to scare people “straight”.

Prisons must be safe and orderly places if we expect paroled inmates to adopt safe and orderly habits in the outside world. If we can make better prisons perhaps we can shorten sentences. Instead of relying so completely on fear our system needs to work on processing dangerous people into harmless ones by building character and pro-social behavior patterns.

Instead of having one person serve five years only to come out and recommit while four others serve no time at all and continue to commit crimes why not have five people serve 1 year and never get into trouble again?

Several years ago “60 Minutes” profiled an experimental prison in San Francisco that had been designed by a former inmate. The goal of this prison was to stop the formation of the bad character traits that most prisons create. It was designed with cells in a big circle several levels high. The guards were in a pavilion in the center. This meant that the prisoners were never out of sight.

Pro-social behavioral rules could be and were enforced. Gangs, drugs, and violence that dominate most American prisons were reduced to the point of insignificance. The road to keeping inmates from re-offending upon release was well on its way. This kind of processing means criminals can be processed into good citizens in less time.

Shorter sentences mean more room for new inmates and an end to the “revolving door” politicians are always snarling about. Hawaii is a particular victim of poor models dominating our corrections planning.

The attitude toward drug offenders is most of the problem. This takes us into a whole new topic so to be brief we suffer high rates of property crime because of our punitive drug laws.

Our prison population has tripled and continues to grow without any demonstrated relationship to solving the actual problems of high crime.

Instead it simply means more able bodied people removed from the workforce and higher taxes for everyone. Cutting our current prison population down to the truly dangerous folks by altering our approach to non-violent drug offenders and various petty offenses would allow us to tear down the aging OCCC and rebuild a modern model prison like the one described in San Francisco.

We could house all of our offenders and have a great deal of assurance that upon release they would not recommit. The tax savings seen in reducing the number of inmates would easily pay for the new construction. We would have no more inmates expensively housed on the mainland. Other prisons in Hawaii could be used to house inmates from other states without cost to our citizens.

I hope that more people will begin to get this. Prisons are for reducing crime, not satisfying the desire for revenge. Our state administration continues to propose ideas directly opposite to this basic approach. Let’s put some pressure on them to change their minds.

”’Tracy Ryan, chair of the Libertarian Party of Hawaii, can be reached by email at:”’

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