I am a firm believer in the concept of playing the hand I’m dealt. I have a friend with whom I play gin rummy on a regular basis. When I’m dealt a hand with no pairs and no successive card in a suit, I don’t punish the cards by throwing them across the room and giving up. I play the hand, make the best I can of it, and hope to get a better hand on the next deal.

Such is the case with many of the problems in our society.  We should work tirelessly to establish conditions whereby we minimize the chance of bad things happening.  My list of bad things includes everything from murder and theft to drug and alcohol addiction, teen pregnancy, dropping out of school, wrecks caused by reckless driving, and smoking.  I’m sure you could make your own list that might be as long as your arm.

The first step in prevention of all bad things is developing our children from birth by their parents and, if applicable in child care.  This is the time we can instill values that will stay with them for life.  On the timeline of life, the next step happens in the school system.  If we could get all parents to understand the importance of that development and model the behavior and values that tend to lead to success, we would have an unbelievable number of fewer bad things happening.  And the amazing fact is that this plan can be implemented by anyone regardless of wealth, IQ,  race, or occupation.

Now let’s jump to the negatives in my dream.

  • Not all parents will buy into this.  Some won’t bother to understand, and others just don’t care.
  • Not all young people will live to the behavior and values they have been taught.  Often this happens as a result of peer pressure.
  • A small percentage of young people will not have the mental capacity to learn and be self-sufficient.
  • Bad breaks such as health problems or debilitating  accidents can occur.

All of this constitutes the hand we’re dealt.  At this point, let’s accept that we will have done all we reasonably could as a society to create the best possible environment, but we still have a relatively small pool of unfortunate circumstances.  Despite our best effort, some people will still abuse drugs and drive recklessly, some teens will get pregnant, and all of the items on your list and mine will happen to a lesser degree than today.

Now let’s look at how we deal with a large portion of those thing that go wrong.  The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the people in prison.  We not only have the greatest percentage of our population in prison we have the greatest absolute number.  And the average length of confinement is far greater that that of any other country.  I’m not going to drag out a plethora of statistics for this article.  Here are a few of the more alarming ones. (I researched various sources and recent years.  There is some slight inconsistency among those numbers, but there hasn’t been much change in the past five years, and the numbers are very close.  I assure you my list represents the nature and degree of the facts.)

  •  7.5 of every thousand people in America is in prison or jail.
  • If we look only at working age men that number jumps to 21 per thousand.  I have chosen not to recognize statistics by ethnicity because that implies that race is the primary factor when, in fact, there are many other contributors such as education and poverty.
  • Get this one tax watchdogs: The annual cost of operating US prisons is about $70 billion or about $28,000 per inmate.  That’s the equivalent of every household in America contributing an average of $600 to run our prisons for a year.  Since we have put oversight of prisons in the hands of for-profit corporations, they have successfully lobbied for lower thresholds and longer sentences.  Of course they have.
  • The most conservative (lowest) estimate I could find says that 30%  of the 2.5 million people incarcerated in America have been convicted of so-called victimless crimes.  While not exactly synonymous, I prefer the term non-violent crimes because while there are not direct victims there is a fallout to indirect ones such as families and employers.  To clarify my point, here is a very small list of examples: possession, purchase, or sale of drugs, prostitution, gambling, drunkenness, embezzlement, immigration offenses, and my personal favorite necrophilia.

I’m not proposing that these offenders not be punished, but imprisonment is totally non-productive and very expensive.  Here are a few alternatives: house imprisonment except for going to work or school, public service, stiff fines, and restitution.  This allows the convicted party to contribute to the community, remain an active parent, and have an opportunity to reform.  There is no evidence that imprisonment yields any of those results.  Predictably the cost savings to the American people would be about $25 billion a year.

Using our usual short-sightedness, we perpetuate the same types of punishments we used when our nation was founded.  We arrest and imprison or kill the perpetrators without regard to the cost or whether that procedure is productive or the cost.

US attorney general Eric Holder is committed to prison reform.  As he puts it, “We need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter and rehabilitate – not merely to convict, warehouse and forget.”

We have to wake up and see to it that imprisonment will be a last resort.  Punishments need to be administered consistently regardless of the wealth or social status of the perpetrator–not fat cats buying their way out.