Monday, September 7, 2009

Thoughts on Justice

After having witnessed someone being arrested at Akard Station in Downtown Dallas, I was inspired to write on the subject of prison.

I personally have no first hand knowledge of prison, nor am I close to anyone with any real experience, unless spending a night in the drunk tank in the city jail counts. Personally, I don't think it does.

But the debate I hear from talking heads and politicos is over the purpose of jail, either as punishment or reform. Some would say that the point of prison is reform, others equivalence. I feel that the point of prison is in fact reform, despite how hard all of my conservative buddies would disagree with me. My reasoning is as follows:

If reform were not the point of prison, and there is no chance that any prisoner will be reformed while service time as sentenced, why then would we ever release a prisoner from jail? Why would we waive our societal right to self defense by allowing a criminal back amongst us knowing that nothing has changed to encourage this former prisoner to obey the law? I would respectfully submit that all persons believe, either intuitively or otherwise, that jail is in fact about reform. Either the experience is miserable enough that a released criminal would never think of committing the crime again, or there is some psychological shift that occurs that makes a previously irresponsible person willing to ignore the boundaries of society re-evaluate that position and have a different take from that point onward.

So, to recap, we all believe that prison is about reform, now the debate is merely about the method employed to bring about reformation. Conservatives more often than not subscribe to the idea of suffering, arguing that the experience should be painful, and that the pain will in fact produce the reformed prisoner. Liberals subscribe to the idea that a prisoner should be given tools that he may have lacked prior to his life of crime that will make him a productive citizen upon release and remove the temptation to commit crimes in the future. I feel that both of these are wrong or hopelessly naive.

This brings me to a concept that Americans don't seem to grasp well: Laws do not prevent anything, consequences of breaking the law are merely deterrents, and never entirely effective. How many times are we going to stupidly say, 'there should be a law against that?' Deterrents are only mostly effective, like a condom. it may be 99.9 percent effective, but we really do roll the dice every day. What this means is that any reasonable or rational person is aware of the laws, and given the severity of consequences for breaking those laws, will more likely 'self-enforce' and obey.

What then should be said of the most grievous offenders behind bars? I would argue that they are misfits, people who for one reason or another cannot respect the boundaries provided by society. Something greater is the cause of this criminal element, something that a mere deterrent was not sufficient to prevent. This is not true for all criminals, but one really must wonder about those who defy laws with knowledge of the consequences, especially when as severe as prison or even execution.

So, what is the solution to the problem? I don't know. In fact, there may never be a solution. Maybe prisoners should never be released from prison. Perhaps there is the possibility of reform for some prisoners. How do we decide which need a helping hand and which need to suffer a little longer? Again, there may never be a good solution to the problem, but I can guarantee that there will always be a heated debate.

I would like to offer personal axioms on the matter:
-Laws do not prevent crimes
-Deterrents work, but only to a limited portion of the population, albeit a vast majority
-Prison IS about reform, but there is a debate upon the mechanism