Lately I’ve been thinking about prison, and how so many people say it doesn’t work on so many levels.  Career criminals come out with refined skills and new contacts.  Bad things happen to some people on the inside – rapes, stabbings, brutalization, and there’s little the guards can do about it.  It costs a lot, so after a criminal has done damage to society the first time, they continue to be a drain.

There’s something to be said for immediate and corporal punishment – amputating a hand for serial theft, castration for aggravated rape, beheading for murder, and so on – but there’s a very good argument that these, too, are brutal, and there’s typically no way to fix things for the unjustly accused.  Nor is this route likely to produce better citizens of the true criminals, which is nominally one of the goals of the penitentiary system.

I’m thinking the better way to go is to make criminals pay for their crimes with dollars instead of hours.  Levy a fine, and be done with it.  The price of crime would need to be a serious, both as a deterrant and as a punishment, so we don’t have people stealing cars simply because they can afford to, or because it doesn’t cost any more than buying it.  We may also need to scale the cost of the crime to some function of income and net worth, to make it a sufficient deterrant to the wealthy, with a minimum price based on minimum wage.  Some fines – those for very serious crimes like rape and murder – might be practically impossible to pay – like 200% of your net worth and 2 years income.

We couldn’t eliminate prison entirely – we’d still need a debtor’s prison to house people while they work off their fines.  Unless people were terminally unskilled or untrainable, the work need not be pressing license plates or picking up trash, either, though these are fine jobs that should pay at least minimum wage.  If someone can make more as an accountant (and someone’s willing to hire them), great.  Shoe salesman?  Fine.  Construction worker?  Terrific.  Feel unsafe about felons working out in public?  Do you feel that much better about felons that are 3-5, 7-10, or even 20 years older, harder, and more bitter?  A lot of crimes, especially non-violent crimes, might simply turn the offender loose and expect payment before the next tax period.

It would be crucial to prevent corruption, so the money collected as part of these punishments can’t go to fund the justice department.  Instead, put what’s left after compensation to the victim into the education department, which is chronically underfunded and is arguably the best road to crime prevention.  How many fewer criminals would there be if every high school was good?  If we could afford to pay teachers based on their contribution to our society?  Am I wrong in thinking that postal workers are paid more, on average?

Also, the IRS would need a bit more funding to provide more accurate records of income and net worth statements to the courts, and to investigate fraud and those cases where the wealthy hire someone poor to take the rap for the crime, to lessen the fine.  Use the money we save from the prison system for that, I say.  And, hey – the IRS can focus their audits on people who come before the court, so if you keep your nose clean, you’re unlikely to be visited by an auditor.

Keep in mind that we already do this to some degree (traffic tickets instead of a night in jail), and there is historical and even biblical precedent (look through the books of the Law to see how many crimes, even violent crimes, were punishable by fine).

What do you think?