Uncommon Nonsense On Justice

The Boston Globe had an editorial recently about the costs of keeping prisoners incarcerated. They make a common-sense, economic argument for lighter sentences for non-violent criminals, pointing out that jail cells are a limited commodity and should be reserved for the greatest threats to society. It’s a good argument.

But I’m not buying it.

As someone with a bit of a libertarian bent, I agree with limiting the power and role of government in everyday life. But one of the major purposes of government is to provide the services that simply aren’t economical for the private sector to cover. National defense is one of them — despite what folks say about Haliburton and Blackwater, it simply isn’t practical to outsource the whole thing. Roads, censuses, and postal service also fall into that category. Toss in passing and enforcing standards for food, drugs, and other safety issues — the potential conflict of interest is just too great.

In that spirit, the penal system is one that simply won’t work on a capitalist basis.

Prisoners are a financial drain. There is really no way of getting around that, short of treating prisoners as slave labor. Therefore, it has to fall on the federal government – local, state, or federal — to pay for it.

But how about reducing the costs of incarcerating someone? Can’t we do something about that?

Well, sure. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County has worked wonders on slashing costs at his jail. It seems he remembers that these people have committed offenses against society, and — as society’s representative — he doesn’t think that society should be asked to spend one penny more than necessary to keep them locked up.

And the Globe has one idea I think I can get behind. “Drug-free zones” around schools and the like are a good idea, but 1,000 feet? That’s a hell of a big circle. And, as the Globe notes, in cities, it can cover huge swaths of real estate. The idea behind them is to keep drug dealing away from school children, but how many kids routinely go up to 1,000 feet from campus during the school day? Cutting the radius in half would bring the law more in line with its actual intent.

But simply revising the laws because they’re causing too many people to be arrested and costing too much money… that’s stupid. And in the Globe’s case, it’s attempting to rationalize its own soft-on-crime attitude by appealing to its traditional opponents on a basis it thinks might work.

Prisoners costing too much? Find ways to cut spending, not cut prisoners. Fix the laws that need fixing, not the ones that simply prove too effective.

Editor’s note: error in paragraph five corrected. Thanks, JFO, for pointing it out first. I wish you’d been more explicit, though; it took Anon Y Mous spelling it out for me to realize what I’d typed.

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