Prison Made Me Liberal

By · Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Ana Diaz is a criminal justice student who takes issue with my assertion that prisons condition failure. She asks whether I have any suggestions on better alternatives to deter crime.

As I read her question, I understood that it came from the premise of the conservative principle that prisons deter crime. I am much more of a liberal. This philosophical debate goes back centuries, articulated well between Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hobbes believed that man was inherently evil and that only strict laws and punishment would keep the beast in line. Locke, on the other hand, believed that we all began as a clean slate, and our behaviors were learned in accordance with our exposures to society.

I am convinced that society can deter crime best by educating its populace. People pursue crime, I believe, because they do not perceive mechanisms through which they can reach the American dream. At least that is what I believe to be the motivation that drives most financial crimes. Myriad factors drive violent crimes, including passion and lost senses due to substance abuse, depression, and hopelessness. I am not convinced that the threat of prison serves as an adequate deterrence.

The prison lobbyists that have an interest in expanding prison budgets would disagree, as they seek to deter funding from social programs to expand this system of human warehousing. The recently released Pew Report shows that prison expenditures have grown at a much faster rate than other social programs, though I don’t believe more prison has stopped anyone from criminal behavior.

Deterring crime in society begins with bringing more access to opportunity. As government leaders implement reforms that will provide all Americans with a path to fulfillment, I feel convinced that more citizens will strive to leave as contributing members of society. Hopelessness, racism, inequality, and other social injustices lead many to crime. With those afflictions, I do not think that prisons serve as a deterrent. But my perceptions, of course, have been influenced from the 21-plus years I’ve spent locked inside of prison boundaries.

I recognize that prisons serve a purpose in our society. They must isolate those who prey upon others and whose behavior demonstrates an unwillingness to accept the values that make America great. Yet prison lobbyists have succeeded in deluding others into believing that we need more and more prisons. This wrongheaded emphasis has resulted in public policies that lead to massive prison expenditures and reduced expenditures on education and health care. Take a look at the problem in the great state of California.

The corrections system has grown by massive proportions, though recidivism rates show that little correcting is going on. Meanwhile, education budgets are slashed to make room for more prison spending. People with last names like Santos or Diaz or Torres are told that there is no funding for college of unemployment. If they lack a strong set of personal values or moral code, they make bad decisions, as I did. The response that has guided public policy for at least 20 years has been to lock those people in prison, but I don’t think it has deterred crime. Perhaps I am wrong, though I feel more emphasis on education and social equality would lead to a safer society.

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