.. at our justice system as it is now leaves a lot to be desired, but I believe that the greatest concern is not how to change criminals once they’ve already been arrested, but how to prevent them from becoming criminals in the first place. My proposition is for society, as well as the government, to turn its attention away from prison reform and focus instead on the issues that lead people to adopt a criminal lifestyle. There are distinct environmental factors that are correlated with criminal behavior. In 1991 a third of all inmates in state prisons had been unemployed prior to their arrest, and of those who had held jobs, one fourth had only part-time jobs. In local jails 36% had been unemployed, 20% looking unsuccessfully for a job and 16% not even trying. Many of these inmates are uneducated as well: only 59% of state prison inmates had a high school diploma or its equivalent, and in local jails, this percentage dropped to a mere 54% of inmates. Two thirds of prisoners rank in the bottom two of five levels used to score the National Adult Literacy Test, compared to less than half of non-incarcerated adults; inmates are, more often than average non-incarcerated adults, less educated than their parents, and the parents of inmates are generally less educated than the parents of non-incarcerated adults in the same age range.
These statistics cannot be chalked up to coincidence alone. Obviously there’s a connection between education and employment opportunities and criminality. Uneducated people, and those who cannot find a job for whatever reason, seem to be far more likely to turn to a criminal lifestyle than those with an education and a job. What I think is then the solution to the problem of skyrocketing crime rates and prison populations is increased attention to education and economic equality. The most important factor in my solution is education.
The first step that needs to be taken is to redistribute state and national tax dollars so that schools are better funded, providing children with the best teachers and educational equipment available so that they are motivated to complete their public education and can go on to be competitive in the job market after graduation from high school or college. Educated people have no real reason to turn to crime for a living, as they have the skills necessary to obtain and hold a decent job. Another part of education is to instill a moral sense in children, and while I don’t know as this can reasonably be part of a public school education, a child who is brought up with moral values will most likely refrain from serious crime on the basis of conscience alone. Although education should provide people with the skills necessary to obtain a higher-paying job, there will still have to be people holding the lower positions in society: the sanitation workers, the truck drivers, etcetera. These people are necessary for our society to run smoothly. Not everyone can be a doctor, no matter what their level of education. Even those people may occasionally have to steal something they need, simply because their insignificant wages won’t stretch far enough to feed and care for their families.
And these people are far more likely to be arrested for theft than rich doctors and lawyers. Another factor is that people below the poverty level are probably more likely to feel no remorse after stealing something, because they have suffered so many injustices in their lifetimes. Most people below the poverty level are born into the situation, and are therefore disadvantaged as far as rising above it goes because the opportunities are simply not available. They will steal the things they need and feel no sense of remorse for having cheated the upper class store owners out of a few dollars. However, there is no reason for the economically disadvantaged people, and those in menial jobs, to have to worry about whether they have enough money for the things they want and need. If the economic system were partially leveled through governmental tax and wage regulation, not so that everyone got the same wages but so that the difference between the economic elite and the poor was not quite as drastic, no one would be forced to steal for a living, thereby eliminating a lot of criminal activity.
If relative economic equality were combined with better education for children (as well as adult literacy programs), I believe that the prison population would be drastically reduced over time, and once the prisons no longer had to deal with the problem of overcrowding, they could turn their attention to those who will continue to commit crimes regardless of measures taken to prevent their ever becoming criminals. There will be the possibility of individualized attention, and those who need to be punished can be punished while those in need of psychiatric treatment can be treated accordingly. The prison system will have a lot more freedom to improve the way it treats those who do find their way through its gates, and then the crime rate can be reduced still further. Of course this system I have proposed would take a long time to take effect on the prison populations, but I think it makes more sense than trying to attack the prison itself. No one solution will work for every prisoner; if we assume that it will, crime rates will still continue to climb exponentially as they have in recent years, and prisons will continue to overcrowd and to drain millions of our tax dollars that could be better spent on education and other things.
The trend can only be reversed by attacking the root of the problem. As the old saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and this rings true for inmates as well as dogs. Train them while they’re puppies, so to speak. A well brought up child will be no more inclined to commit a crime than a well-trained dog will be to urinate on the rug. And if the crime rate is so drastically reduced, society as a whole will be greatly improved.