Too Many in Jail

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We have more people locked up than any other country in the world. A full 25 percent of all the prisoners in the world are in American jails. In December 2006, that amounted to 2.25 million people.

Those numbers are from a report by the International Center for Prison Studies.

The facts raise a lot of interesting questions. Do we just have more criminals than anyone else? Apparently so, since by definition people sentenced to be locked up in jails and prisons are criminals. So the next question is, Why? Could it be that our laws create criminals, in the sense that acts that used to be considered noncriminal have been criminalized by overeager legislators?

That’s certainly part of the problem. I can cite one example from Florida. Suppose two men get into an argument and one of them feels threatened by the other. He gets a pistol, points it at the person he feels is a threat and tells him to leave. The guy leaves. Nobody gets shot. In the past, that might never have been considered a crime. Today, it is classified as aggravated assault and carries a mandatory prison sentence.

Legislators, who have no real responsibility for law enforcement, cannot resist doing something when some particular act makes the news. Their usual response, if whatever made the news isn’t a crime, is to make it a crime or to increase the penalty if it already is a crime.

One example is the federal law against the murder of a federal agent. It is completely unnecessary. State laws against murder do not exclude federal agents and never have. In fact, state laws against murder don’t exclude anybody. When carjacking made the news, Congress passed a federal law against it. Again, entirely unnecessary. State laws already covered the act.

Hate-crime laws are another example of legislative grandstanding. Murder is already against the law in all 50 states. To the victim, the murderer’s motive is irrelevant; you are just as dead if you are murdered by a thief or by someone who doesn’t care for your religion or race. Hate-crime advocates think punishment should be based on motive, with crimes motivated by prejudice receiving tougher penalties. Never mind that this degrades the pain and suffering of other victims of identical acts. It clearly sends the message that your death (and therefore your life) is less important than this other guy’s.

Of course, the motive of the hate-crime crowd is to legislate against hate speech. It’s already happened in some states. This, of course, is legislating against thought, which, however obnoxious, deserves the protection of the First Amendment. If a white man doesn’t like black people or if a black man doesn’t like white people, both should be free to say so.

Criminal laws should be confined to actions that cause death, injury, theft or destruction of property. The sole purpose of criminal laws should be to administer punishment. They should not be used in an attempt to accomplish some kind of social purpose, no matter how worthy.

Finally, of course, a sensible criminal-justice system would confine only people who are dangerous. In fact, only a third of the people in state prisons are there for violent crimes. Many are there for selling contraband — namely, common drugs, which the federal government has decided people shouldn’t use.

It would be a good social policy to try to dissuade people from using drugs that are harmful to them, but criminal laws should not be employed as a bludgeon. Going to prison has never educated anybody except in the ways of crime. Like the war in Iraq, the war on drugs is a failure, and like Prohibition, it has created criminal gangs and widespread corruption.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

© 2007 by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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