Today, July 14th, marks the French national holiday, Bastille Day. It celebrates a pivotal event in the outbreak of the French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a notorious prison in Paris, home of political prisoners and many others unjustly imprisoned. It also held numerous stores of ammunition and was seen as representative of the arbitrary power of the existing regime. Its fall fairly quickly led to the end of the monarchy (and the monarch) and is celebrated to this day much in the same way Americans celebrate the Fourth of July.
But it occurs to me that America needs its own Bastille Day. In the “land of the free,” over 2 million people are incarcerated, the highest number in the world. And the fact that nearly 1 in 100 of our citizens are behind bars gives us an incarceration rate higher than any other nation on Earth. Prisons are big business in America and, while the prison industrial complex may not be quite as nefarious as the military industrial complex, the people impacted, whether it be the inmates, their families or their communities, are often irreparably harmed. And, as is usually the case, it is the poorest, the least privileged and the people of color who are impacted disproportionately.
People who study this kind of thing for a living advance different explanations for why this is the case. Disproportionately long sentences, a greater likelihood of apprehension and conviction and the criminalization of a wider range of behaviors all likely play a role. But the very idea of incarceration is a curious one and deserves to be thought through more deeply than is usually the case.
Throughout most of human history, crimes tended to be punished by death, some other form of corporal punishment, exile or restitution. And that kind of makes sense. Sometimes the act is so heinous that the person has forfeited the right to live or at least live within that society. Other times it was thought that a good whooping (or perhaps losing a hand) would teach the offender a lesson. And, if you’ve taken what didn’t belong to you, being required to return it, along with some significant penalty, seemed a good way to make things right again. You only imprisoned people while you were waiting to punish them or until they worked off their debt to society.
While I am not advocating a return to the days of beheadings or hangings nor am I suggesting that chopping off a hand is a good way to reduce theft, I do think a very large number of those behind bars do not belong there. There are better ways of dealing with social problems than locking them away behind high walls.
First and foremost, people should never be locked up for nonviolent offenses. Many of these are so called “victimless crimes.” The idea that people should be jailed for harming themselves is simply ludicrous. Whether it be drugs, gambling, prostitution, or whatever else you can think of, if you want to help these folks, offer to actually help them, not put them behind bars. This reminds me of a sign I saw in a casino not long ago. It warned minors that they were not to gamble or they would be subject to fines or imprisonment. Seriously? Because losing $20 on a slot machine would be so much worse than a $500 fine and a few months locked away with (and probably sodomized by) violent offenders. And we pretend we are civilized.
Secondly, most property crime should be dealt with through restitution. If you steal from me and then are sent to prison, I lose twice. First, you stole my property. Second, the government stole my property to pay to feed, clothe, shelter and guard your sorry ass. Just give me my money back. If that means compelling someone to get a job and work until they have paid me back with significant interest, then so be it. But locking you away doesn’t help me, the actual victim, one bit.
Prison should be reserved for the human predators that live among us. The murderers, rapists, child molesters, and all the other violent criminals are the people who belong there. When you have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you do not deserve to be a part of civilized society, then you deserve to be locked away for a long time. And they’ll be more than enough room to house you comfortably for many years after we “storm the Bastille” and purge the prisons of those who have no business being there.
Thanks again, as always, for your continued support of this blog! Have a great weekend and we’ll be back next week with more controversial opinions and clever insights! You won’t want to miss it!