The Prison Planet
Many years ago, novelist Kurt Vonnegut published a series of short stories entitled “The Sirens of Titan” (1959). My favorite story was about the Prison Planet. I am remembering from about forty years ago but, basically, a space traveler (Malachi Constant) and his dog land on the prison planet and are promptly arrested when the hero gives his dog some beer to drink. At the time he landed there one third of the planet was in prison, one third was administering the prison population and one third were the remaining citizens. At his trial, his defense attorney was arrested and Malachi was convicted. While on appeal, the Supreme Court was arrested and, at the end of the story, only the warden was not incarcerated. Fiction, right? Wrong.
The United States has about 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. One out of every 290 people in the United States is either in jail or in prison. Virtually everything is a crime now. In 1790 there were only three federal crimes. By 1990 there were 2700 and by 2010 there were 4700. Have people gotten such much more evil that so many new crimes are needed to cover their wrongdoings? Of course not. Current crimes include prison for selling unpasteurized milk. That crime was passed at the behest of the dairy industry which has sunk untold millions of dollars in pasteurization so their investment has to be protected. It is the same bureaucracy that currently has 47,000 pages of regulations, with the force of law, regulating asparagus. Really?
In 1994, on January 1st, Arizona passed the so-called “Truth in Sentencing” Law. What that did is to bring Arizona sentencing in line with the existing federal sentencing laws by requiring that a defendant who is sentenced to prison must serve 85% of the sentence in custody. Parole has been eliminated and the remaining 15% is under what is called “community supervision”. Which, of course, is parole by another name. A little research indicates that around 30 other states passed nearly identical laws around the same time. What happened? What happened is the private prison industry. Years ago the lobbyists for private prisons went to state legislatures (and Congress) and showed that they could house prisoners cheaper on a daily basis than any state or federal entity could. That was true. However, these “Truth in Sentencing” laws were lobbied for, written by, and passed due to the private prison industry. What happened is that by lengthening the time of incarceration, the private prison industry made more money simply because of the increase in the amount of time served by each prisoner. Follow the money.
Prior to the Arizona criminal code change in 1978, a judge had virtually unlimited discretion in fashioning a sentence. Crimes had varying lengths of sentence such as one to three or five to twenty. At the time, the Arizona Department of Corrections calculated a sentence based on which was shorter, one half the maximum or two months short of the minimum. Probation was available on virtually every crime. One would think that a judge who heard all of the factual evidence, all of the mitigation and all of the aggravation evidence would be in the best position to decide the proper sentence. That was until prosecutors rode on a wave of hysteria telling the legislatures that judges were “soft on crime”. Hence, mandatory sentences. When was the last time you heard anyone repeat Thomas Jefferson’s comment that “Better that a thousand guilty men go free than one innocent man convicted”? Yeah, that’s what I thought.