Crime and Reconciliation

A recent study finds that federal judges are sentencing criminals to longer prison terms. Sentences imposed this year average more than twice as long as terms imposed 2 years ago. The change is mostly because of a get-tough-on-drugs policy, which has resulted in mandatory prison terms for drug offenders and harsher terms for repeat drug offenders. Now, as Christians we applaud tough measures against crime. Or do we? May I suggest that what looks tough on paper doesn't always get tough results in the prison yard or on the street. Longer terms don't necessarily keep people behind bars any longer. They aren't a stronger deterrent to crime, either. Here's why. The simple fact is, the US prison system is so overcrowded it simply can't absorb longer sentences. Some prisons have resorted to setting up tents out on the lawns to house minimum-security inmates. But what most prisons do is simply shorten the terms and let inmates out early to make room for new ones. Recently, a county judge in California sentenced a man to jail for one month. But when the man reached the jailhouse door, he was turned away. It turned out that because of overcrowding, everyone's sentence was being reduced by 30 days. This man's sentence was exactly 30 days, so it was reduced to zero. He signed in--and walked away. The upshot is that overcrowding is so severe, and the cost of building new prisons is so high, that longer sentences mean nothing. Early-release policies are going to continue, in spite of judges who order longer sentences. It's an exercise in futility. But does the threat of longer sentences at least deter crime? That's the hope, of course. But criminologists agree that harsher penalties don't deter criminals if they have good reason to think the penalty will never be imposed. And that's exactly what criminals think today. Consider the statistics. Only 1 out of 3 crimes is even reported to the police. Of those, only 1 in 5 leads to an arrest. Which means that for every 100 crimes, there are only 7 arrests. Out of those 7 arrests, less than half are convicted. And of those, only half are incarcerated. (The rest are put on probation). In short, for every 100 crimes committed, only 2 people end up in jail or prison. The seasoned criminal knows this. He knows the odds are that he will never have to pay for his crime. So he's not going to be deterred by talk about tougher sentences. Punishment deters only when criminals know they will be caught and that punishment will be swift and sure. Milder sentences actually deter as effectively as tough ones if the criminal knows they will actually be imposed. We're all in favor of stopping crime. But simply putting longer sentences down on paper isn't going to accomplish much. About the only beneficiaries of longer prison terms are the politicians who can claim a good law-and-order record come election time. A better way to reform sentencing is to introduce alternative forms of sentencing for nonviolent offenders: community service, house arrest, victim restitution. Put them to work serving their community and restoring their victims. Then prisons can do what they're supposed to do: keep the really dangerous offenders off the streets.


Chuck Colson


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