Last week, former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway was sentenced to one year in prison for bank fraud. In an attempt to qualify on a short sale, Hathaway concealed her assets with family members; however, she was caught in the process of doing so.
According to our written law and to most people, Hathaway’s punishment is appropriate. She abused her power as a justice for her own benefit and deserves to suffer for a year — even if it’s at Camp Cupcake, the site where TV personality Martha Stewart served her prison stint. However, with jail overcrowding becoming an ever-present issue, this approach and obsession for “sticking it to the man” is shortsighted.
First and foremost, sentence lengths seem incredibly arbitrary to me. Why does Hathaway need to be incarcerated for one year to repent for her crime? Why not six months or two years? I have a feeling that she already feels guilty just by going through the trial process.
Perhaps the greatest goal of criminal justice should be that of prevention. About half of prisoners incarcerated have a mental health problem. If these people had better mental health resources, then it’s possible that many of these crimes may have never happened in the first place.
But in cases where imprisonment is required, our prison system needs to become a more efficient experience. In order to do that, our philosophy of the prison system’s purpose must change. Yes, criminals like murderers and rapists should be jailed for greater lengths of time seeing that they are threats to society. But shouldn’t the overall purpose of incarceration be about rehabilitation? Prisons should be doing a better job of helping people function within society upon their release. Right now, this isn’t the case. Within three years of release, 67 percent of former inmates are arrested and reenter the prison world. If the system adjusted its approach by providing opportunities for higher education — perhaps by taking advantage of trade school or websites like Coursera — that figure could certainly decrease.
That being said, a new approach must be taken with fiscal responsibility. Because of the amount taxpayers are spending to incarcerate criminals, it’s become a financially irresponsible venture. In most states, it costs over $30,000 each year to house one inmate. Think about it. That’s enough to send a hopeful student to the University for a year on scholarship. There are plenty of other ways that money could be spent to improve how our society functions, including — but not limited to — schools, infrastructure, public transportation and health programs.
We also must alter what types of offenses should require incarceration. Couldn’t house arrest be an appropriate punishment for crimes like Hathaway’s? It drove Lucille and George Bluth, Sr. from “Arrested Development” crazy, so why couldn’t it work for her? While I make that comment in jest, she definitely isn’t a physical threat to society, so let her be locked up in her own home.
Also, many drug offenses that carry mandatory jail time could be changed to carry mandatory community service that actually benefits the community they harmed. And not only that, but it would also cost significantly less. There are countless options of punishments that would still make life difficult for offenders that wouldn’t run up the bill and would be more effective in creating fewer repeat offenders.
The biggest barrier to change is the fact that our prison system has become increasingly privatized. This has incentivized keeping more criminals locked up for longer, sucking away funds that again could be used for a better purpose. The U.S. imprisons more people than any other country in the world because of this system, so it’s obvious that new regulations are needed in order to stop this from spiraling out of control.
While I admit what I’ve laid out is not concrete by any means, the era of mass incarceration must end. We can’t continue to be trapped by the past and romanticize the days of Alcatraz — even if “Lockup” does make for interesting TV.
Derek Wolfe can be reached at email@example.com.