My Turn: We must find alternatives to imprisonment

Posted: Tuesday, July 01, 2003

It is time for Alaska (and our American society) to reassess our criminal justice system, not from a moral perspective, but from an economic and practical one. Two things stand out: First, our society imprisons more people per capita than any other industrialized country. Second, we no longer can afford the extraordinary costs associated with imprisoning so many people. We are running out of discretionary money.

Legislatures ostensibly earn their keep by drafting new and modifying existing criminal laws each year. Not only are more acts criminalized, the punishments almost always grow harsher, i.e., longer prison sentences result from our frustration that we have not reduced crime.

The new administration holds to a law-and-order philosophy as a method of making our streets and homes safer. Yet, as one example of the difficulties we face, Alaska city jails are threatening to close because the cities cannot afford the high costs, and the state administration is unwilling to fully fund them. Funding for alcohol programs, domestic violence programs and youth courts is being cut to the bone because we live in recessionary times.

Our society is terribly troubled by drug and alcohol abuse. The vast majority of inmates landed in prison either directly or indirectly because of drugs or alcohol. This is not a new problem, yet for years we have strode down the philosophical path of believing that sternly increased punishment will cure those ills. It should be clear that it hasn't. One glance at statistics showing the heavily increased percentage of people in prison indicates that harsher laws and harsher punishments do nothing to deter crimes committed because of drugs or alcohol. Human beings have a natural predilection to drink alcohol and ingest drugs. Some then commit crimes they never would commit when sober. When high on drugs or alcohol, they do not contemplate the consequences, which is to say that heavy punishments do little or nothing to deter criminal behavior.

We need to decide how we want to spend our public money, because there isn't enough of it to continue putting people in prisons at the rate we've been going. Let us look at an example of the government prosecuting someone for the possession and sale of a few grams of cocaine. How much do we as taxpayers want to spend in the apprehension, persecution and punishment of such a person? A police investigation in such cases is not typically cheap, involving perhaps $25,000 (a wild guess) in labor and resources costs. Next comes the cost of prosecution, which includes resources from the district attorney's office, court clerks, grand jurors, a judge's time and possibly the public defender's. At the least, another few thousand dollars come out of the taxpayers' pockets. Then, assuming the person is a first offender and spends six months in jail, you can tack on another $25,000 or so for the costs of imprisonment, a modest additional amount for state-funded rehabilitation drug programs, and a modest additional amount for probation-related expenses. Total cost to the taxpayer, in very rough figures, probably tops $100,000. It's chump change until you multiply the costs by the number of people who go through the system.

We must learn to balance the harm to society against the cost to alleviate that harm. Is it worth $100,000 or so (remembering that it's our tax dollars) to imprison someone who sells cocaine? Or, in the case of someone who receives 16 years in prison for drunk driving vehicular manslaughter, is it worth somewhere between $750,000 and $1 million to keep such a person off the streets and punish him or her for the wrong he or she committed? Undoubtedly, in some cases, the answer is yes, in other cases no. But we must more carefully examine which is which.

There are no easy answers, but we have reached a point where we can no longer blithely urge our government to put more people in jail for longer periods of time. We cannot afford it unless we cut social programs, public services and money to schools. And, the more we cut those programs, the more crime we will ultimately have to deal with.

We must find alternatives.

David Mallet is a criminal defense lawyer who has practiced in Alaska since 1978.

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