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Over 2400 years ago, Socrates died in a jail cell while awaiting his execution.  For most of human history, incarceration has not been a form of punishment, but rather a place to await a different form of punishment (for Socrates, he was ordered to drink Hemlock, a lethal poison).  Early governments executed, exiled, maimed or released their accused criminals, but extended incarceration has only existed for the past few hundred years.  Today, no country locks up more of its citizens than the US.  This is reflective of a complete failure by society, not just bad decisions by the individuals we lock up.  I previously wrote about this disturbing truth here.

Punishment is meant to achieve several things.  Deterrence, rehabilitation, and public safety are some of the goals. 

The deterrent effects of incarceration are debatable.  The idea is simple.  People do not want to be locked up.  If committing crimes means getting locked up, then people won't commit crimes.  The biggest problem I see with this calculus is that the calculus is vastly different for different people.  People of privilege will value their freedom over added income.  At the same time, those who do not have enough to survive will disregard the risk of losing their liberty in order to feed themselves and their children.  As an intern with the Defender Association of Philadelphia and with the San Diego Alternate Public Defender, I encountered many "criminals" who would vastly prefer a minimum wage job to their life of crime.  Nevertheless, the opportunity isn't there.  How many McDonald's restaurants are there for every lousy school that fails to educate thousands of people each year?  Without higher education, employment opportunities are highly limited.

As a criminal defense attorney in Los Angeles, I am in close contact with repeat offenders almost daily.  In particular, I remember a conversation I had with a street level crack dealer.  Our society has deemed these people to be among the worst human beings on our planet.  We have this image of a drug dealer, driving an Escalade, wearing expensive clothes and jewelry and profiting heavily from the destruction their product causes individuals and communities.  In reality, street level drug dealers typically make much less than $100 per day.  This 31 year old man was risking his life and liberty every day just to provide for his child.  The problem is that even unskilled labor requires more education than a lot of people are getting in American low income communities.  Young people grow up seeing that the only way to survive, not prosper, but simply provide is to sell drugs.  With the top 20% of our population controlling 98% of the money, what's left for the bottom 20%?  How about the bottom 5%?  The American Dream is but a cruel lie for far too many Americans.  Now, lock them up for taking advantage of the only avenue they have left!  Opportunity makes deterrence irrelevant for a large percentage of the people we lock up. 

I won't even bother to discuss rehabilitation.  Inmate degree programs have shrunk in recent years and no one who is knowledgeable about incarceration in the US would dream that locking someone up in a county jail, state or federal prison is a method to improve that person in any way.  In reality, the process makes citizens feel alienated, wronged and introduces them to an entrenched life of crime.  If someone is undeterred by the threat of incarceration and winds up in jail or prison, their time in custody often helps to develop their knowledge and ability as criminals, not as citizens.  Incarcerated individuals find the education, acceptance and acknowledgment they've been denied their entire lives in gangs and in continued criminal activity. 

Systematic incarceration of the poor and minority populations, rather than improved opportunities has put citizens too at odds with their government.  People are born almost at war with their own state.  This needs to change.  Our government places so much emphasis on overpowering and instilling fear over and in its own citizens that it rises to the level of tyranny. 

Maintaining the wealth and privilege of the upper class has led to complete disregard for the well being of our society's poor.  The comfortable decision makers in our society are happy to put the poorest people in our society through hell if it means their continued prosperity.  It is better for them, but not society as a whole, if our government overpowers, rather than empowers its citizens. 

Education, not incarceration, is the answer to this country's crime problems.  While roughly 3% of the world population is mentally gifted, 20% of the prison population is!  Our government wants to break these people, but we would be much better off giving them the opportunity to succeed without crime. 

Long term incarceration may still be required and appropriate, but not at the levels and not under the conditions it exists today.  Sentencing alternatives like probation, addiction counseling, work-release, community service and home monitoring need to replace a large portion of our jail and prison sentences.  My feelings and thoughts on this topic could go on forever, so I'll stop here.  Please feel free to share your thoughts, agreement and disagreement alike below.

Nicholas M. Loncar, Esq.
Los Angeles Criminal Defense Attorney
t. 818-646-8788 | f: 818-646-8772
MOBILE: 323-803-4352
www.iDefendLosAngeles.com
Nicholas.Loncar@iDefendLosAngeles.com
12198 Ventura Blvd | Suite 207
Studio City, CA | 91604

By Nicholas Loncar

 


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