Second Thoughts

Crime and Punishment

by Ralph Heller

he United States prison and jail population grew by another six percent last year, from an estimated 1.6 million inmates as of June 30, 1996 to 1.7 million as of June 30, 1997. As measured and reported annually by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, last year’s jump was slightly smaller than the increases recorded in the immediately preceding years, but none-the-less gave the United States the distinction of having one of every 155 U.S. residents behind bars.

According to the Sentencing Project, a research organization, the U.S. prison population has continued to rise every year even though the overall U.S. crime rate has been declining steadily since 1992. "On a per capita basis," reports the research group, "the United States is now second only to Russia in its rate of incarceration, and locks up its citizens at five to 10 times the rate of most industrialized nations."

Conservatives have traditionally been staunch defenders of a relatively rigid approach to "law and order," but increasingly it is becoming disturbingly obvious that "law and order" has become an end in itself rather than a system of justice to make life safer and more enjoyable for most citizens.

Most unsettling of all are the statistics recently released by the U.S. Center for Disease Control headquartered in Atlanta— statistics concerning America’s children. Compared with children in 25 other industrialized nations, children in the United States are 12 times as likely to die by gunfire, five times as likely to be the victims of homicide, and twice as likely to commit suicide. "We were expecting that the United States would have higher rates," reported Etienne Krug, who coordinated the study for the Center in Atlanta, "but we were very surprised at the magnitude of difference."

It is a review of those startling children’s statistics that suggests most compellingly that it may be time to reassess our nation’s approach to crime and punishment. Increasingly it becomes apparent that dozens of other factors have more to do with crime than society’s laws and legislated punishments, factors certainly including today’s relativist "feel good" morality coupled with the diminished influence of churches and other societal pillars of moral behavior that have far more impact than law enforcement on human conduct.

Indeed, it has already become clear that certain legal practices undermine rather than support public sensitivity concerning "right and wrong," not the least objectionable of which is "mandatory sentencing."

It was an appeals court judge in New York who pointed out in a magazine article that a penniless mother who steals powdered milk for her baby and a thug who steals powdered milk to cut heroin have committed the same crime. Does anyone really want to see them given identical, "mandatory" prison sentences?

In no other area do we see the clash between "law and order" and moral sensitivity more vividly than in the area of capital punishment. A study reported recently in The Economist reveals that between 1900 and 1985 the United States and its states convicted 350 people of capital crimes who were later determined to be innocent— a report that becomes truly horrifying with the revelation that 23 of those 350 innocent people were actually executed. Is such a barbarous record acceptable to anybody? Certain conclusions are inescapable. First off, America’s highly refined legal system with all its checks and balances— in which we take such pride—cannot be counted on to impose punishment with a semblance of impartiality and fairness. No less inescapable is the obvious fact that our present "law and order" approach to dictating behavior— to the exclusion of more promising moral influences—is serving our young people very poorly.

All of this is further complicated, of course, by the fact that the United States has more lawyers per 100,000 people than any other place on earth, which has served not to enhance justice, fairness and moral sensitivity, but to muddy the waters by making the law itself hopelessly complex. Meanwhile, "law and order professionals"—police chiefs, prosecutors, sheriffs— continue to come up with one innovation after another having more to do with public relations than with community welfare.

What customarily motivates a society in its search for justice is retribution—"an eye for an eye and a tooth of a tooth"— but this approach serves us poorly, discounting the fact that men are not gods and cannot be counted on to legislate, prosecute or sentence other men with God-like wisdom.

At present six percent of the U.S. population is behind bars, which is almost as high a percentage of inmates as existed in Hitler’s Germany when England and France declared war against the Third Reich in September, 1939. It is time to begin to reassess this U.S. Justice System which has become such a caricature of what it was intended to be—using our heads as well as our hearts.


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