I believe that if you commit a crime, especially a violent crime, you must be punished. And prison is the most humane punishment available. If a criminal is locked up in prison, they lose their freedom, they may deter other would-be criminals, and our lives and property are a little safer. We feel that we have achieved justice.
But prison costs a lot of money. According to the National Institute of Corrections, Hawaii spent $21,637 per inmate in 2008. We house more than 4,422 convicted criminals and supervise 19,097 probationers.
Not only do we pay the costs of incarceration (housing, security, food, clothing, health care, and therapy), we have to pay for parole and unemployment benefits too, because they probably can’t find a job right away. We lose the taxes the convicted person would have paid if they still had a job. And their spouses and children lose their financial and emotional support.
Prison is an effective deterrent for people who are basically law-abiding. Because of that, I think we should avoid mandatory prison sentencing for non-violent crimes.
The first part of the probation program for non-violent crimes is new, and may be controversial:
1. Shame. Especially in small communities, shame is a powerful deterrent. Every week, we could print a notice in the local paper about recently convicted criminals (adults and juveniles), with their name, photo, conviction, and sentence. Families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers would all know whether someone they know committed a crime. Since all of this information is public record, there should be no privacy issues.
2. House arrest. It’s not quite a curfew, but there should be no overnight or out-of-state trips unless required by their employer or physician, or in the case of a family emergency. However, I’m not sure how we could enforce this, without running into privacy issues.
The rest of the probation program uses existing penalties, but with specific changes:
3. Big, targeted fines. Let’s keep people employed and require that a percent of their income be put towards restitution. Judges should not simply impose a fine that goes into a general fund; they should designate a specific person, family, business, program, or charity. For example, someone convicted of drunk driving could pay for an anti-drinking campaign or a medical fund. If they don’t pay the fine, it has a direct consequence on someone else.
4. Community service. All community service sentences should involve interacting with the community, not just cleaning up parks or beaches. They should be seen and appreciated by the community, and they can see the effects have on others. For example, someone convicted of drug possession could speak to high school students or volunteer at a hospital. Another option should be to enlist in the National Guard.
Mandatory prison time isn’t the answer for all crimes. Sometimes it creates a cycle of crime, instead. And it doesn’t solve the problem that got them to prison in the first place (that’s another issue). What do you think?