The High Cost of Crime and Punishment

by Burt on July 28, 2015

On the subject of crime, as Thomas Sowell has noted, liberals and conservatives often talk past each other. They don’t agree on what causes crime, or how it can be prevented.

Conservatives, for example, see crime in society as inevitable. Human nature is flawed, and thus some people will rob, cheat, or injure others if an advantage can be gained by doing so. To prevent anarchy in society, deterrents against crime (e.g. jails and fines) must be firmly in place and faithfully supported by law. Potential criminals need to see that the costs of being caught outweigh the gains from the crime. When institutions–families, churches, and schools–train children to behave lawfully, everyone gains.

Liberals, however, often disagree about the causes of crime. They see human nature as basically good. The problems come from within society itself. For example, poverty or poor education can sidetrack normally good people into lives of crime. The solution, therefore, is in government intervention–a war on poverty or more education so that the goodness in people will at last emerge and crime will decline.

Neither side is completely right or wrong, but the conservative view prevailed in the U.S. until about 1900, when the Progressive Era began. Since then, the liberal view has dominated prison reform, and we can see the signs of this everywhere.

Prison leaders in the 1800s believed in incarceration as a punishment and deterrent, but around 1900 they began stressing rehabilitation and parole for good behavior. Prisons became “departments of corrections,” with the implication being that prisoners had committed crimes because of false or inadequate knowledge. In prison, they would be rehabilitated, or “corrected”, and then released when that occurred.

In the last one hundred years, the massive increase in crime, the huge costs of operating prisons, and the stunningly high rate of recidivism suggest that the liberal view has failed. As many states teeter on bankruptcy, the high cost of crime and punishment has become a national issue. Thousands of inmates are being released due to overcrowding.

I have seen maximum-security prisons first hand every year for the last 32 years when I visit my friend Mitchell Rutledge, who is in an Alabama prison serving life without parole. Ironically, Mitch, who is ineligible for parole, is one of the few inside who is actually rehabilitated.

In 1983, TIME magazine wrote Mitch off as a hopeless case. “To most people,” TIME wrote, “the life of a foolish punk like Rutledge does not count for much. He is defective. His death would not be unbearably sad.” At the time, Mitch was on death row, illiterate and friendless. But he had just become a Christian and that spiritual change, not prison, would be his transformation. “I just want to let everybody know that I am sorry for what I did,” Mitch told TIME about his murder of a drug dealer.

Mitch’s words haunted me all day and night. I couldn’t sleep. I decided to write this inmate, and when I did I discovered one of the most remarkable human dramas one can imagine. My wife Anita and I have written a new book, Death on Hold, which is the story of Mitch’s transformation from that of an illiterate street kid to a mature, self-controlled man who is an elected leader in the prison honor dorm and a speaker to at-risk youth.

What about rehabilitation, and the high rate of recidivism? “The environment in prison,” Mitch says, “tends to be survival of the fittest. Most who leave here are worse off than when they came.”

The prisons do sometimes allow Christians to put on programs, and Mitch is encouraged by that. It leads to change from the inside out. That change seems to be far more effective than rehabilitation and corrections.

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