I hope you are familiar with the troubling statistic that the United States has only 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prisoners. There is no question that a society needs jails and prisons, and while I was on the bench I sentenced defendants to both. But it was never easy, nor should it have been. In my view, prison mostly should be reserved for people who are a continuing danger to the rest of us. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, some people see us as their rightful prey, and have little compunction about using force to get what they want. So they simply must be removed from society. In addition, I am a believer in the benefits of short periods of jail for non-violent offenders. In that regard, my father, who was a highly-respected federal judge, told the story that after he sentenced a Beverly Hills doctor to jail for 90 days for an income tax fraud, the IRS agent later told him that he would be amazed at the number of amended tax returns the IRS had received from Beverly Hills doctors. So sentences of this kind really can be a deterrent to criminal conduct, which is a good thing.
But for decades our country has been mindlessly incarcerating vast numbers of people without any benefit to anyone except the prison guard’s unions. And in the meantime, this comes with an extraordinary cost both in human as well as financial terms. Removing people from society for long periods of time not only deprives them of their liberty, it also strongly tends to dehumanize and institutionalize them and make them cynical. Furthermore, it often renders them unemployable, thus making them excellent candidates to become repeat offenders. In addition, when we incarcerate a breadwinner, it often not only puts their families onto welfare, it also deprives their children of parental guidance, which likely will result in the children repeating their parent’s mistakes. And, of course, it is enormously expensive for the taxpayer. So I hope you agree that before we deprive people of their liberty through incarceration, we should be certain that it is necessary, and is being done for the right reasons.
Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)
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