The people's voice of reason

The Problem With Penitentiaries

In past articles we have discussed the breakdown of the family and the impact of family breakdown on moral formation. We suggested that inadequate moral formation is the root cause of crime. We suggested the possibility that the breakdown of the family and damage to its role in moral formation has contributed to the escalating rate of incarceration. We have also discussed the important role that the peer group plays in moral formation and the fact that usually the “peer group” is found in churches, families, schools and other community organizations. Those organizations help to build good citizens. We have pointed out that an economy that assigns economic value to individuals based on skills will place a low value on individuals with poor skills. These individuals will ultimately be deemed “worthless”. According to one study, the average full range IQ is 92, (low average) with linguistic skills being even lower, a disproportionate number wind up in the penitentiary. Now we are ready to discuss the role of penitentiaries as a solution to crime.

The modern prison system originated in Philadelphia in the early 1800’s. The idea behind penitentiaries had a somewhat theological basis. The idea was that individuals are born with a conscience and that given time to think about their inappropriate behavior, they will become penitent. So the thought runs, we will isolate them from society and give them time to think about their criminal activities. Given time to think about it, they will repent. The idea of penitentiaries that would rehabilitate criminals quickly spread and became an established part of our criminal justice system. Even though the underlying theory was doomed to failure, penitentiaries were accepted as a way to remove the criminals from the street and to make the world a safer place to live. From the vantage point of the non-criminal population, it seemed like a good solution.

There are some significant problems with this approach. First, the approach ignores the real basis of moral formation. Morals are instilled by family and peer groups. What are we doing when we take all of the bad guys and put them at the same location? Who is the “peer group”? What are the chances that the original theory of penitence will work in that environment? Instead of an institution in which individuals become penitent, we are likely creating a graduate school for inappropriate moral formation. At the end of the sentence, we send these economically handicapped individuals back to the street.

The cost of penitentiaries is spiraling upward. The rate of incarceration in the United States remained constant from 1924 to 1964, but, over the past 50 years the rate has greatly escalated. The cost is very high. I suspect that the cost of maintaining our prisons is greater than the cost the State of Alabama pays for all its efforts in higher education. The spiraling costs and overcrowding creates pressure for early release, and the rate of recidivism is high.

The problem with incarceration of large numbers of people in penitentiaries is that although it is a very expensive burden for tax payers, it is not an effective solution to the problem of crime.

The solution to these problems is not at all easy or obvious. Intuitively, it is clear there has got to be a better solution to the problem of criminal conduct other than assembling all of the criminals at a central location. The problem is the system and the solution must be a system founded on proper moral formation. We need intervention at a much earlier stage in the moral development of the individuals who are likely candidates. Although the traditional family has broken down we need to be very vigilant in attending to the moral formation needs of the very young. We need to find training programs so that those persons who are not talented in the ways of traditional education can nevertheless, find meaningful activity in which they make a meaningful contribution to society. They need to be appreciated. Incarceration in a central penitentiary needs to be a last resort. Needless to say there are hardened criminals who need to be locked up for long periods of time. But for others, we need to find better local, non-central solutions.

Local communities need to take a stronger interest in dealing with the problem. To make probation more successful, during my tenure as judge, I worked hard to promote a concept of probation sponsorship. I will describe the probation sponsorship program in more depth in a future article. But the next article will deal with the disproportionate rate of incarceration of the black race.


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