Prisons and Criminals

I like thought experiments. Playing out extreme scenarios in my head (or talking with others about them) helps me figure out where I stand on issues and find mistakes in my own life philosophy. I like being consistent, or at least knowing where I am inconsistent. It was with that in mind that I posted the following to Facebook. “If you had the power to release every single person in a US jail right now would you?” In hindsight the phrasing wasn’t what I really had in mind and the conversation kind of got crazy sidetracked, as these things to do on the internet. I actually find Facebook to be a terrible place for well thought out debate or discussions, and this reaffirmed that, but I still have the subject on my mind so I thought I’d put up a post.

A better way to phrase my question would have been, “If you had to choose between the status quo with a large number of people who are unjustly imprisoned and releasing all prisoners back into society instantly, which would you choose?” For me an unjustly imprisoned person falls into two basic categories. First, and likely pretty uncontroversial, are people who have committed no crime at all and are in prison anyway. This could be people wrongfully convicted, framed by police, or pressured into taking a plea deal when they were innocent. The second group, and maybe controversial for some, are those guilty of committing a crime but the crime itself is unjust. This would include those in jail for drug possession and dealing, prostitution, and some other non-violent offences.

The core principle this question raises for me is how much injustice are we willing to put up with for convenience and/or the perception of safety and stability. How many people and their families must suffer as collateral damage in order to keep real dangers to society like murderers and rapists off the street? Would it be a more just world if we just released everybody and dealt with the fallout? Is it simply a numbers game where if 10% of the people are unjustly imprisoned that is too high but 1% is acceptable? If so, how do we draw that line?

You could also look to see if this is an appropriate use of resources. In 2013, 11,208 people were victims of a homicide while over 600,000 die from heart disease. Would society be better off if we just sucked up the damage from murderers each year and instead spent that $212,000,000 on medical research or working to eliminating the cause of violent crime. To put those costs in perspective adding the criminal justice money solely to heart disease research would increase the budget by 300-times. If you take the average lifespan (80 years for simplicity) of someone and consider the entire thing a loss each year then there are 896,640 years lost annually. From a mathematical standpoint that 300-times increase in funding would need to add average of about 1.5 years to each heart disease victims life to even it out. I’d be willing to bet that massive increase in funding could do a lot more than that. Or maybe that money could go to help alleviate poverty (a cause of violence), increase mental health access across the country, or help provide stability for broken homes.

In the end, I have no fucking idea where I stand on whether we should release everyone and under what conditions. But the subject does get me thinking and I realize there is something VERY wrong with our current system. We need serious reform that includes legalization of victim-less “crimes”, a focus on reform instead of punishment, and increasing the economic opportunities available to people.

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