July 31, 2003

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if we sent our kids to prison instead of school? I realize there are times as parents that we would be inclined to place our children behind bars and throw away the keys, still the majority of time we wouldn't believe that this is a good idea. But if you stop and look at the current fiscal condition of most states and the proposed budget cuts for education you might change your mind. Last year Missouri spent on average less than $7,000 per student in public school systems. That's compared to a national average of more than $20,000 a year spent per inmate by the county, state and federal prison systems across the United States.

So when we're talking about ways to come up with more money for our kids' education maybe we should stop considering higher taxes and instead find a way to lower America's prison populations or at least the cost of maintaining the system. According to published reports the American prison system housed 2.1 million prisoners last year at a cost of more than $40 billion.

I definitely am not abdicating that we free all of the prisoners and stop sending people to jail in order to save money. Anyone who knows me realizes that I honestly think there are plenty of folks out there who are quality candidates to further bloating our nations prison population. I often voice my disbelief on the lack of punishment doled out by today's justice system. But what can be done when there is no additional prison space? Judges have no where to send prisoners and even when they are sent to prison they often are sent right back as early releases become more and more frequent to help lessen the stress on the overcrowded system.

What's the solution? There really is no easy answer. Obviously we need prisons. It's shocking when you realize that nearly one out of every 145 people in the United States currently is incarcerated in a jail for some sort of a criminal infraction. And if you look at the numbers crime went down by 0.2 percent last year according to the FBI as the nation's prisoner count grew by more than 2.5 percent over the same period. Experts would argue the decreased crime rate is due to stiffer penalties and more mandatory jail time. On the other end opponents of the push for stronger law enforcement would argue that decriminalizing certain elements of the drug world would free up more than enough of prison space for violent crimes and other infractions that truly deserve prison time more than individuals serving time on drug charges.

This radical writer was unable to locate any statistics on prison populations in foreign countries that have stronger punishments for criminals. I'll likely set off a mass letter writing campaign from the civil rights folks - but I'd bet the farm that some of these third world parties that still chop off your hand when you get caught stealing or send you to the hangman for drug trafficing probably don't have a bunch of petty thieves and dopers filling up their prisons costing law abiding taxpayers $20,000 a pop. So these penalties may be a little over the top, but personally I don't see anything wrong with stiffening the punishment. The whole idea behind the penal system is, one to penalize the offender so they don't do it again, and two to scare anyone else considering committing such a crime from doing so in the future. Apparently a couple million people out there are not afraid of jail and plenty aren't too scared to go back. Maybe instead of protecting criminals from cruel and unusual punishment we ought to threaten them with the mean and the nasty in order to keep them from breaking the law in the first place.

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