It’s easy to be in favor of being “tough on crime.” No one likes criminal behavior, and being victimized can range from annoying to life ending. So why not “lock ‘em up” ? But society also recognizes that we should have limits on what we do to those convicted of crimes. We don’t cut off the hands of thieves like in some countries, publicly torture people like in the Middle Ages, or execute people like in some other states. Criminal behavior, our society recognizes, doesn’t justify unlimited punishment. We have to stop somewhere. The question is where.

To make the question more complicated, there’s also the expense of punishing people convicted of crime. Your tax dollars keep the prisons open, and the more people courts put in prison, the more it costs. More and more people today are ending up on probation, which isn’t the get out of jail free ticket a lot of people think. Any violation of probation can result in revocation, and that means off to prison. That might sound easy, but probation has dozens of rules, including things like checking in regularly in person and random drug testing. For most people, that means having a car. Given that crime and poverty go hand in hand, it is no surprise that many probationers just can’t always get a ride. An it is usually a condition of probation that the offender have a job. In this bad economy, losing your job can equal a violation of the rules and off to the big house. In an ideal world, probation officers would be sympathetic people who understood the many problems faced by their clients, but POs are overworked, underpaid, and have too many cases to give much individual attention. What it comes down to is either you follow the rules or you don’t, and that isn’t always in your control.

In this tough economy, these kind of revocations, where no new crime has been committed, are increasingly common. We’re spending millions of dollars to put people in prison for not being able get a job or a car. I think it is time for us to re-evaluate our sentencing system thoughtfully, with an eye toward what we can do to save tax dollars while maximizing the rehabilitation of offenders. While it may feel good to get “pay back” by putting someone in prison for what they did, in the end that doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t help them learn how to lead a law-abiding life, it locks them up with hardened criminals, and it is the most expensive option available to the public. If a politician came up to you and said let’s spend the most money possible for the least possible payoff, you’d vote for the other guy. For three decades now, that’s what we’ve been doing, and it’s not working.

Related: Too many probationers sent back to prison


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