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Control, Correction, Punishment


A 48-year-old woman was just sentenced to 10 years in prison for embezzlement. She is also required to repay almost $800,000, is married, and has a 6-year-old child. I don’t want to say any more about this particular case, but instead use it to introduce a more general issue.

Crimes against persons need to be controlled, which usually requires imprisonment. However, prisons are crowded with persons who have stolen property. It seems to me that given modern devices such as the electronic monitor, what is needed is not control but correction. That is, no prison sentences for first-offense property crimes. Prisons are not particularly good at correction, especially when they are crowded.

Perhaps some of the money saved by not further crowding prisons could be used for correctional purposes. One possibility would be for the convicted persons to meet with the parole officer more frequently. A weekly psychotherapy group for offenders would be more to the point, but still cost much less than imprisonment.

Why do we keep imprisoning first-time offenders against property? One obvious reason is to make an example, to warn others not to commit the offense. But there may be another reason that is less obvious and also less constructive. Perhaps the court and the public are angry at all offenders and want to punish them. It seems to me that there is vindictiveness abroad in our society that steers us into mistakes, such as choosing punitive measures that interfere with correction. If that is the case, we need to find less harmful ways of managing these destructive feelings.

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