By Kevin Wilson
When you think of crime and punishment in America, a few things come to mind. What pops up first in conversation usually depends on your background and outlook on things.
Maybe the first thing you think about is the absurd number of laws we have on the books. Maybe what concerns you most is way that race and economic status can impact sentencing. Perhaps you recall a famous court case where someone went free who you thought should have been convicted, or was convicted when you were sure that they were innocent.
What you don’t hear very often is someone voicing the opinion that the system, as it stands right now, works perfectly fine. While no two people seem to agree on what exactly is wrong with it, just about everyone I’ve ever spoken to on the matter thinks that the system is broken. And while I’m not about to argue that something is true just because everyone believes it, I think, in this case, the majority is right.
The basic framework of our criminal justice system is sound. The Bill of Rights lays out exactly what rights we have under it, and it does a pretty good job. We’re entitled to a trial by jury. We’re entitled to due process. You can’t be made to incriminate yourself. The protections it outlines were revolutionary at the time, and continue to be among the most fair and just in the civilized world.
The system was designed from the ground up to make it as hard as humanly possible for an innocent person to be wrongfully convicted, and if the price of that is the occasional guilty person goes free, well, I’m fine with that.
But somewhere along the line, things have gotten screwy. Exactly where things went wrong is hard to pinpoint. I’ve heard some fairly convincing cases made that early Progressives really started the ball rolling, and of course no conversation on injustice in America is complete without discussing Jim Crow laws and their continuing influence.
What is clear is that, in its current form, America’s criminal justice system is screwed up so badly, we might as well scrap the whole thing and start over again from the Bill of Rights. There are layers upon layers of retardation here. Trying to pick out one part that’s more jacked up in all the rest is like trying to figure out which turd in the burn barrel is smelliest.
If, however, I had to choose one facet of the criminal justice system that most annoyed me, I’d immediately point towards the prison system.
Whoever thought that locking criminals up together for years on end and expecting them to magically come out the other end as productive citizens was a moron of the highest caliber. Of all the boneheaded ideas thought up by the human mind in the last couple centuries, that has to be right up there with homeopathy and making Kim Kardashian a celebrity.
I get the basic reasoning behind putting someone in prison. If you commit a crime, you deserve to be punished, and there has to be a happy medium between a fine and the death penalty. But some bright spark decided that the best way to punish someone for selling weed was coincidentally the best way to punish someone for robbing a bank or spontaneously shooting a guy in the face. Just how the hell does that make sense?
It wouldn’t be so bad if the primary purpose of prison was to reform criminals into productive citizens, but it’s not. We just lock these people up for years on end with other criminals, and when their time is up, we throw them out into the world. Only since it’s damn near impossible for an ex-con to get a decent job, and since they’ve had years to build contacts and learn how to perfect their crime game in prison, far too many offenders end up locked up again.
And, of course, the taxpayer ends up footing the bill for it all.
It’s asinine. Surely we, as one of the richest and most productive countries in the world, can come up with something better than that.
Here’s a thought: maybe instead of throwing criminals in a hole and hoping for the best, we actually make them learn a useful skill. No parole for you until you’ve got your welding certificate, Mr. Drug Dealer.
Oh, and while we’re at it, stop locking people up for drug related offenses. Unless you’re selling to minors or stealing shit to fund a habit, there’s no point. The War on Drugs is about as useful as tits on a bull, and it’s high time (I refuse to apologize for that pun) we stopped wasting money on it.
Also, make a distinction between someone who can be successfully rehabilitated and someone who’s just a bad apple. And then separate them. By all means, lock the murderers and rapists and child molesters in the deepest hole you can find, then flood it with nerve gas. But the guys who turned to crime because that was the only way to put food on the table? Give them a viable alternative and maybe they won’t end up back in jail in a year or so.
I realize there are plenty of people who’ll balk at the idea of helping criminals, because ultimately they’ll end up footing the bill. Why should they have to pay for some two bit thug to learn AutoCAD, or become a certified electrician? Well, you’d have to pay for them to rot in a cell for the next decade or three, so you might as well get the most for your money, right?
Of course, I realize as I type this that exactly none of it will ever happen. Inertia is a stone bitch, and the American people are about as stubborn and hardheaded as any group that ever lived.
That’s not a bad thing on the whole; once we get rolling in a particular direction on something, we don’t hit the brakes. That’s a trait that’s served us well time and time again. But that applies equally when shit goes wrong. Just this once, it’d sure be nice if someone with a little power would realize they’re driving straight off a cliff and maybe turn the wheel a little.