Our society seems to think that the answer to all crimes is jail, much like the schools seem to think that detention is the way to solve all behavioral issues. The problem with this theory is that there is only so much jail space, and if the punishment does not fit the crime, the chances that the person will modify his or her behavior is significantly reduced.
Separation from society as a punishment for a committed crime (e.g. jail or prison) should be reserved for those who are a danger to society. This means violent criminals. While they are in jail, the public is at least safe from that particular person.
But locking up non-violent criminals is overkill at best and is essentially ineffective. Additionally, jail sentences for non-violent criminals can create worse problems for society in the long run.
Take the person who uses marijuana on a personal level. He works at a job 40 hours a week. He takes care of his family. He helps out around the house. His one fault is that he likes to smoke marijuana to relax in the evening, much like his neighbor might like to have a beer or a glass of wine.
But, marijuana is illegal. So he is arrested. And since he has been smoking marijuana for a long time, he gets a jail sentence. Excellent punishment, right? That will teach him a lesson!
Except, now his family has no money for food or shelter. His paycheck is no longer coming in, since he has been put into jail as punishment for his recreational use of marijuana that did not harm anyone. Now his family is suffering. They didn’t hurt anyone either; but they may well end up on the streets anyway. All because the only solution our society can come up with to deal with a non-violent marijuana user is jail.
How about rehab? How about counseling, to find out why he needs the marijuana to help him relax?
If the punishment fits the crime, true restitution can occur. If a person steals, he should not only pay back the person he stole from; he should also pay society back by way of community service hours. Much more effective than simply sticking him in jail for a while. And society benefits in the long run.
The cold, hard truth is that we are running out of prison and jail bedspace. In Washington State we are already so short of these beds that we are contracting for beds with other states. More prisons are being built. And a large majority of people taking up those prison beds are non-violent.
Maybe it is just me, but I think we would be better off spending the money it costs to incarceration everyone in community programs, education, and drug addiction counseling. Ultimately our society would benefit from that approach. As it stands now; pretty soon we will have two groups in society – those that work in the criminal justice system and those that are incarcerated. What kind of society will that be?