Warehousing large numbers of people in prison is neither wise, nor just, nor humane as most people, and certainly conservatives, recognize. Allowing rampant crime to go unchecked is also none of these things. As a result of many factors, we have a large prison population in the United States and it is incumbent on us as a society to figure out how to prevent individuals from going to prison, how to ensure humane treatment of those who are in prison and how to help those who are released from prison not return there.
Part of the answer to the first question may involve strengthening families, particularly promoting married fatherhood. A recent article by Kay Hymowitz makes a strong case for the link between crime rates and marriage breakdown:
The bottom line is that there is a large body of literature showing that children of single mothers are more likely to commit crimes than children who grow up with their married parents. This is true not just in the United States, but wherever the issue has been researched. … Studies cannot prove conclusively that fatherlessness — or any other factor — actually causes people to commit crimes. For that, you’d have to do the impossible: take a large group of infants and raise each of them simultaneously in two precisely equivalent households—except one would be headed by a father and mother and the other by a lone mother. But by comparing criminals of the same race, education, income, and mother’s education whose primary observable difference is family structure, social scientists have come as close as they can to making the causal case with the methodological tools available.
Michael Horowitz of the Hudson Institute has included in his important Wilberforce Agenda an effort to end the evil practice of sexual assault in prison. This is a most worthy cause.
Closer to home, the Deseret News published an important article on efforts to help prisoners to successfully re-enter society after their jail terms end. The description of what has been done to help non-violent criminals avoid recidivism in Hawaii, Arizona and Washington provides some important possibilities for moving forward on this matter. This ought to be a high priority in public policy.
A movie version of the popular musical Les Miserables has recently been released. Having seen neither, I can only say that the book on which this is based includes a beautiful story of redemption involving a former prisoner given the opportunity for another chance. (My free advice would be to save the money you would use to go to the movie and buy Gary Schmidt’s modern classic Okay for Now which provides a beautiful story of the human capacity for change.) I believe Les Miserables is so popular in Utah because that message rings true. It is consistent with our most important beliefs about human potential and with the crucial reality that people can and do change.
Utah is known for its well-managed state finances and strong families. This is true because the priority we place on these matters spring from the powerful ideals so many Utahns share. We also share, or should share, ideals about treating those who are in prison with compassion. It is time for Utah to be known also for its wise, humane and just approach to preventing the crimes that cause prison sentences; the abuse of those who are in prison; and unsuccessful re-entry into society after a sentence.