Life and Debt

In Florida recently two men murdered a Turkish exchange student. Both had been convicted several times before and should never have been on the streets. But they were released early because of prison overcrowding. In Texas a man was recently convicted of a string of rapes and robberies. He, too, already had a long criminal record. And he, too, had been released early because of prison over-crowding. Across the country violent criminals are being set free to haunt the streets again. And the reason has nothing to do with changes in our philosophy of criminal justice. The reason is purely pragmatic: Under present sentencing policies, there is simply not enough prison space. Since the 1960s, violent crime has increased 560 percent. States have been unable to build prisons fast enough to keep up with the demand. Out of desperation many states have been cutting prison terms. As courts hand out new convictions, inmates already serving time are released early to free up prison cells. Most people would be shocked if they knew how little time most convicted criminals actually spend behind bars. The average time served for murder is five and a half years. Just five and a half years. For rape: three years. For assault: a little over one year. It seems life is cheap these days; those who destroy it pay only a cheap fine. What's the solution? Build more prisons? There's a limit to how much more money we can keep pouring into prison construction. Over the past 20 years, we've spent $37 billion in new prison construction, with $15 billion more underway or planned. Today America has almost as many people in prison as in active military duty. Yet our streets are not any safer. A far better, and more affordable, solution is to create alternative forms of punishment. Low-level, non-dangerous offenders should not be taking up prison space. They can be punished? often more rigorously?through community-service programs or home supervision. Electronic monitoring allows a nonviolent, nondangerous offender to keep a job, using the money to support his family and pay restitution to his victims. Every crime needs to be punished, but not every criminal needs to be punished the same way. Placing the nondangerous in alternative programs frees up prison space for truly dangerous criminals?the ones now being freed early to prey upon innocent citizens. As Attorney General Janet Reno has noted, murderers and rapists are being released early precisely because low-level offenders are clogging our nation's prisons. In some people's minds, the idea of alternative sentencing is connected with wooly-headed liberals who are soft on crime. But the reality is just the opposite: By using alterna-tives we can free up the prison space we so desperately need to lock up offenders who are an imminent threat to society?and keep them locked up for a good long time. I'm not talking about letting murderers out; I'm talking about letting petty thieves and forgers out . . . precisely so we can keep murderers in. Life is not cheap. In God's eyes, every life is special, every life has infinite value. It's time to make it costly again to destroy a human life.


Chuck Colson


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