• Doug Tjapkes

If our goal is vengeance, we're doing just fine!

Someone once labeled these as The Seven Last Words of the Church: “We never did it that way before!”

For years American penologists have been studying alternatives to incarceration, but I’m afraid the same philosophy is winning. We just can’t get past our penchant for using jails and prisons to “punish and deter.” Never mind how ineffective or inefficient the process.

When Roger Stone was sentenced to a federal prison earlier this year, even conservative Detroit News writer Nolan Finley joined my bandwagon: “Up to 39% of the 2 million Americans rotting away in prison cells shouldn't be there, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.”

It makes me sick when I think of the number of people I’ve seen behind bars in the last two decades who were over-sentenced, who shouldn’t be there at all, or who could benefit themselves and society by serving a positive, alternative sentence.

Hear me out on alternative sentencing.

You may remember the high-profile national case some years ago, when billionaire Martha Stewart was sent to prison for corporate fraud. Does it take a genius to figure out that, instead of paying for her room and board, we could assign this nutrition expert to community service, perhaps helping poor people find a healthy way to buy food and prepare meals on a low budget? Duh!

Years ago friends of a woman who had embezzled from her employer met with me to complain about her sentence. The accountant had no criminal record, but wrongly chose to steal the money to cover her husband’s financial indiscretions. I’m not defending the crime, but I’m saying that a professional accountant could be handed an effective community service assignment. Just imagine mentoring and tutoring possibilities! Less cost. Greater benefits!

The researchers Nolan Finley referenced earlier “…found 14% of those incarcerated have already served long sentences, are reformed and no longer present a threat to society. Another 25% are non-violent offenders who…are not likely to repeat.”

Concludes Finley: Locking them away for months or years serves no societal purpose that couldn't be achieved by other means. It simply sates our thirst for vengeance. We have to get over our insistence that a prison sentence is the only way to deliver justice to the victims of crime. It may make us feel good to see Roger Stone and others like him marched into a cell, but that satisfaction is not worth the price in taxpayer dollars and ruined lives. 

I’m sure I won’t see it anymore in my lifetime, but I’m still hoping for the day when U.S. penal experts say, “We’ll never do it that way again!”

May God grant us wisdom and foresight, as we consider humanity for prisoners.

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