Reconsidering criminal punishment

We know that the prison system is expensive to maintain and not particularly effective. So what are other solutions to crime?


Just recently, Oklahoma released  462 non-violent inmates from jail early. Why? Because the state was running out of room in its jails, and the cost of punishing significant numbers of people with prisons is a huge financial burden on the community.

Why do we put people in jail, anyway? You might better ask, “Why do we punish people at all?” We put people in jail to remove them from society for the safety of others. We also do it to punish the offenders in the hope that this will deter them from crime. We select a form of punishment to encourage the criminals to comply with the rules of society. But we don’t always consider the cost to society in using jail as a punishment; there are other things that can be done.  

What other punishments are there? Financial punishments (fines). Depriving the criminals of civil rights (e.g., voting). Allowing the criminals to return to society in a way that will encourage them to learn the rules of society (let them have day jobs but return to jail at night; let them go out wearing electronic legcuffs). Community service; capital punishment; restitution (let the criminal pay what the victim has lost); physical punishment (e.g., whipping; limb amputation).

The most expensive form of punishment for the society is incarceration without the criminal doing any sort of work to benefit society. But there are forms of incarceration which permits the offender to do community service. For instance, the government could have a large farm where the criminals could work (doing community service) while controlled with electronic shackles. There are large companies that hire convicted felons. Then why not hire criminals who are still serving their terms, where their salaries can be paid over to the government as a form of restitution? The criminal can do work which may help him be law abiding afterwards, and the cost of keeping him tied up may be paid by the work which he does.

An alternative form of punishment which I would advocate would be physical punishment for criminals who replicate their criminal activity. For example, let us posit a stock broker who breaks the law governing stock sales. Most such criminals only need to pay fines or other financial punishments. They rarely go to jail. But let’s consider stringing together punishments as a valid means of deterrence. The first time the stock broker is punished, he must pay a hefty fine. But if he breaks the law again, his broker’s license is taken away, and he is sentenced to three years working in the city sewer system, with most of his earnings going to the government. And if it violates the law again, he has to suffer a public whipping followed by being locked up in stocks for a week in public. The threat of severe physical punishment plus public humiliation should deter him from repeating his offenses.

The American system has not used physical punishment or public humiliation for a long time, although examples of the latter have returned recently. It’s difficult to tell if such punishment deters or not, yet it is cheaper than jail time and may be as effective.

Oklahoma took a brave step forward in freeing people from prison early. This step is unlikely to make criminals more likely to do crime, but at the same time it saved money for the society. Yet the state could have showed criminals reasons not to do crime by adding the threat of physical punishment or public humiliation if the criminals return to criminal activity. In my view, these older forms of punishment can be effective if the perpetrators are well aware that it will be their punishment if they keep acting criminally.

Prisons and the prison system have numerous problems that can be avoided if other forms of punishment are used. Prisons are expensive to build and maintain. As we discovered when we had a private prison system, the owners were motivated to have more prisoners. But even with the public prison system, the guards are motivated to vote for tougher sentences. If the punishments are fines or public humiliation, there isn’t such motivation.

Prisons also remove a large part of the population from the workforce. If a parent is put into prison, the children immediately lack financial and human support in their lives. This adds to the cost in society. Punishing criminals but allowing them to earn money to support their families mitigates this problem. That’s why the threat of physical punishment or public humiliation may be a better solution, because the punishment does not fall on the family members.

When you think about it, the reliance on prisons is both expensive and ineffective. Keeping criminals out of contact with the rest of society does prevent further injury to other members of society, but only while the criminal is in jail. And during that time the prisoner’s family may be financial impinged, and the prisoner learns to become friends with other criminals. Aren’t there better solutions? One would hope so.


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