I had a discussion about the prison system and an interesting question came up which at first I though was easy to answer but then as the discussion continued I realized it isn't as easy as first thought.
The question is what is the point of the prison system, is the goal to reform those we incarcerate, is it to punish those who do wrong, or is it to protect society from those viewed as dangerous?
I've always stood behind the belief that prisons are meant to protect society from those who are dangerous to us. That's fine until you begin to look at victimless crimes. If someone grows a couple pot plants in their basement and smokes up every other night how are they causing me any harm? They clearly don't put me in danger in any way (assuming they are driving a bus on I'm while stoned) so should they be viewed the same as someone up murders or rapes others? I don't feel I need to be protected from someone looking to get high on weekends.
So what about those who feel prison should reform? If you do feel it should be a criminal offense to have a pot plant or two growing in your basement then most likely you feel prison should reform these people. But going back to the criminal who is a serial murderer or rapist. If we find someone dangerous enough to live life in prison without the possibility of parole then what are we even trying to reform them for? They will never be introduced back into society and for the cases when they do are they truely to be trusted? We've been trying to reform sex offenders for years and find it isn't working. That's leading towns to pass laws tracking them once they are released and dictating where they can or can't live.
This leaves punish. If punishment is the goal then please explain mandatory sentencing for drug crimes leaving someone with a bag of pot sitting in prisons for 20 years and allowing someone who murdered their wife to get away with serving only seven year? Our laws continue to force sentences on broad cases taking away the ability of judges to look at criminals on a case by case basis. This leaves us with punishments for lesser crimes that go far and beyond punishments for lesser crimes all because it was politically beneficial to pass mandatory sentencing laws for those lesser crimes. You also need to look at who pushes for mandatory sentencing... the biggest supporter are the unions working in the prisons themselves, more job security when you force prison on people.
This is the core problem with our prison system. We all have different goals.
If we view prison as I do as strictly as a method of protecting society from those intending to cause us harm then it would greatly simplify the whole process.
For starters we could begin taking victimless crimes off the books. Gambling, drugs, prostitution etc. They don't harm anyone outside of the willing and even if you do view them as a problem they you should be willing to admit they are addictions, not crimes. Addictions are not something to punish someone for but something that they need help for. This alone will free thousands from prisons and lower tax burdens on the rest of us because in stead of being drains on the tax payers who need to pay for that persons upkeep in prison, they can be productive citizens who also contribute. Heck, some druggies may actually even go on to become the "rich". The Grateful Dead come to mind.
Lesser crimes such as speeding which could put someone at risk or could endanger someone else but not intentionally could be dealt with with punishment in the forms of fines or community service.
By saving prison for only those who poise a danger to the rest of us not only does it help save us money because we aren't paying for the living expenses of someone we do not need to fear it also allows those who haven't done too much wrong or at least those who do not intend to put the rest of us in danger to continue to contribute to society.