Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Can we afford to be self rightous?

Our country continues to sink in a quagmire of debt just as our government is trying to decide how much paper to print to stimulate the economy. My hope is the people and countries buying America's debt don't realize our collective lack of will and resources to pay it back.

At the same time we are struggling with the financial burdens to keep our sinking country afloat we are imprisoning the very people who can save us. We need the youth to pay the Social Security for the old. We need the youth to produce and to spend money. Yet, we incarcerate a greater portion of our population then any other nation including China and Russia. I have read that one in 31 adults are on probation, parole or in prison. Many of these people are young, willing and able to work.

Judges should take a long hard look before incarcerating a non-violent offender. Prison does not deter criminals from committing more crimes. Looking at the recidivism rate, it is clear prison teaches inmates to become better criminals. Our criminal justice system makes it so a person who has a hard time finding a job before incarceration has an even harder time finding a job afterwards. If a person is out of work and his only jobs skills were taught to him by the bullies and thugs in prison, what is going to happen? What can we expect to happen?

Judges often mistakenly believe putting someone in prison will deter others in the community from committing crimes. I do not support this theory. No criminal believes he will get caught. Most crimes are committed when people are under the influence of drugs or under duress. Thus, would-be criminals are not saying, "I read in the paper someone was sentenced to ten years in prison. I think I will quit using drugs". Everyone is aware that drugs are illegal. Everyone knows they can go to jail for using them. People still use drugs. For a teenager, five years in jail is the same as twenty. If you're young, any amount of jail seems like forever. If they believed they would get caught they wouldn't commit the crime. The youth believe they're invincible.

The most disturbing trend is giving first time offenders between 2-15 days in jail to get their attention. If they can do their time on weekends and work release that is understandable. If not and they end up losing their job, then we are almost assured of more criminal behavior in the future.

Our justice system should be primarily motivated by doing what is right. It should be less motivated by punishment and public perception. Yes, we must punish people. I have imprisoned my own children in their rooms. That being said my motivation is not the punishment. I'm motivated by love and the desire for them to reach their full potential as productive adults. Judges must also consider their motivation prior to sentencing a person to prison. If the court is considering a sentence for a violent offender and they are motivated to protect society, prison maybe the appropriate sentence. If the criminal is mentally ill or addicted to drugs then treatment may be appropriate. If the criminal is not violent and shows a willingness to comply with probation then maybe we should give them the opportunity to do so. Judges should not simply read through the factors in mitigation and aggravation like reading a shopping list. Judges should remember the person before them is a human being with the potential to make a positive impact on society.

I don't like to quote religious sources since my blog supports no particular religion. That being said if, "We are judged by how we treat the least among us." Mathew 25: 35-40. Then judges must remember they are not only the judge but the judged. We as citizens must remember to seek out justice not just vengeance and punishment. There may have been a time when financially this country could absorb the cost of mass incarceration. That time is gone.

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