Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Prison as part of a debt to society

Now and then I hear the phrase "debt to society" used in combination with imprisonment, the implication being that people are sent to prison to fulfill the "debt to society" and then once that is complete, they may go free. This is a completely absurd concept.

Can you think of any other situation in which a debt is paid by the debtor losing huge amounts of time, and at major cost to the creditor? Let's imagine that the prison system really is a literal system of debts. A guy with an income of about $20,000 per year(arbitrary) is imprisoned, at a cost of about $22,000 per year (actual number). If we imagine a strange fantasy world in which the lost income of prisoners goes to the creditor (that being society), then at best society is still down $2000. In other words, the process of paying off the debt causes the creditor to lose even more money. Of course this will be different if the prisoner has a higher income. But of course a prisoner isn't generating any income because he's not at his job, so the actual income for the creditor is zero, resulting in a loss of $22,000 when attempting to regain a debt.

Does this sound ridiculous enough yet, this concept that prison is part of repaying a debt to society? Let's go further.

Imagine that you take out a mortgage. Then you default. You now owe a debt to the bank. The bank seeks to regain that debt. How? By burning down the house. See how completely absurd this is?

Why don't we treat the "debt to society" as an actual debt to be repaid? I mean money, not vague concepts like "justice". Not to dismiss justice, but if we're going to talk about debt, we might as well talk about something definite.

I propose that this debt be calculated by damage caused. That damage includes the stolen property, assets, money, etc. So if someone breaks a window (cost $500) to steal a stereo worth $200, the total crime is $700. This actually gives them a discount since it leaves out inconvenience and the police work cost. But I'm willing to let that go for now, for the sake of simplicity. Simpler is better for everyone except lawyers and fraudsters.

To repay the debt, the individual literally repays it from either bank accounts or future wages. This would be calculated to ensure that they are not financially ruined by the process but also so that they do not gain any benefit from the crime. For example, an individual cannot be forced to put it on credit, since that would put them into a cycle of debt, nor can they lose so much of future wages that they cannot afford basic living expenses. The goal is to repay the debt, not to drive them into crime just to pay for their previous crime.

If the individual is unemployed, well that's a tough one that I haven't figured out. Leaving the debt over them to be paid when they do eventually find work would discourage them from seeking over the table work. But just dropping the debt would encourage crime. Mandatory employment is more commonly known as slavery and would result in the crazy situation of criminals taking jobs from law-abiding citizens, possibly driving those same citizens into crime to get by, and well we can see how that's a path straight downhill. On a side note, we can see there how government oppression is encouraged, and to some, justified, by criminal behavior.

Crimes such as property damage fit easily into this system. Fraud and other 'theft-like' crimes fit as well, since they fall into a material loss category. Murder, rape, assault, or other non-property crimes are clearly difficult to fit into this and perhaps would be handled in a separate system.

The goal is to keep people out of prison, not because I like them, but because it's expensive and often hardens criminals. What could be more encouraging to a "fuck the system" attitude than spending five years locked up by that system?

It's more than a little bit idealistic, but imagine how much lower taxes could be if people weren't locked up. Imagine how much less crime there could be without large parts of the population being taught to hate orderly society. Or maybe crime wouldn't change. But at least the overall cost would be lower. At the least there's little interaction between prison terms and crime rates. Unfortunately being "tough on crime" is a politically useful stance, just like being "strong on defense", another stance which encourages huge amounts of spending for little to no benefit, but which is always politically safe. No one wants to be "soft on defense" or "weak on crime".

1 comment:

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