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Martha Stewart and the Immorality of Prison

by Izzy Kalman (December 2004) For punishments to be truly moral, they have to fit the crime. Punishment has the following three objectives: 1) deterrence to crime; 2) restitution for damage; and 3) reformation of criminals, that is, raising their moral development so they can feel remorse for their crime and abandon their evil ways. If a punishment is milder than the crime, it will do none of the above. If it is harsher, it will deter crime, but will not reform the criminal. Punishment that is more severe than the crime turns a criminal into a bigger victim than their own victim, and victims do not feel remorse. They want revenge. Only when the punishment fits the crime does it perform all three functions adequately. Somehow, the standard punishment in modern societies has become “prison time.” In fact, punishment and prison have become almost synonymous, and the wisdom of this is rarely questioned. Prison time rarely fits the crime. It does serve nicely as a deterrent, but that is about all it does. But does it make any restitution to victims? No. Instead, society continues to be victimized because we have to continue paying tens of thousands of dollars per year to keep the criminal locked up. Does it enable criminals to feel the degree of suffering they caused their victims? No – unless their crime was keeping their victim locked up. Rather than completing their sentences as better human beings, many criminals matriculate with an advanced degree from Crime University. Martha Stewart’s punishment is a wonderful example of the immorality of prison as punishment. Her illegal stock trade saved her something like $50,000, a minor sum for Martha. She was willing to pay a fine of millions of dollars to avoid the humiliation and wasted time of being locked up like a dangerous criminal. This handsome sum would have made restitution for her crime many times over. Instead, our criminal justice system preferred to spend lots of taxpayer money so we can humiliate her. Does anyone really benefit from her being in prison? (Now that I think of it, her fellow prisoners are probably benefiting. There are lots of people who would give their right arm for the opportunity to spend half-a-year being Martha Stewart’s dorm mates.) Does locking her up do a better job of reforming her character than imposing a large monetary punishment; will she come out feeling remorse for her terrible crime? Not likely. She’s more likely to leave embittered and cynical about our unfair legal justice system. Is fear of prison the only way to deter people from crimes like insider trading? Of course not. If people know they will lose lots of money if they are caught, it will do a sufficient job of deterring insider trading. And if the legal justice system were smart, they would use a portion of the fine to pay for the costs of investigating and prosecuting crime, instead of making taxpayers shoulder this burden. With such a system not only would crime not pay, criminals would be paying the costs of the continuing fight against crime. And let’s not forget that the government’s intensive prosecution made huge victims of shareholders of Martha Stewart stock (no, I wasn’t one of them), whose value declined sharply in response to the government prosecution. Punishment is serious business and deserves to be given much thought. If we want a more ethical society, it’s about time we abandoned the foolish idea that spending time in prison is the way for criminals to “pay their debt to society.” The website of the Libertarian Party (I should write about that in a future newsletter) informs us that the crime level in Japan is far lower than in the U.S. This can be attributed to their criminal justice system. In Japan, criminals are forced to monetarily compensate their victims for the harm they caused, and to apologize to them. This process is backed up by the families of the criminals. The Japanese system happens to be very similar to the Biblical model. We may think that society has evolved morally since the days of the Bible, but this is not necessarily so. Imprisonment is not prescribed as a punishment in the Bible, and it shouldn’t be prescribed here, either. Prison should be reserved for people who are too dangerous to be allowed to roam the world freely. Most people in prisons are not violent and there is no reason to keep them locked up at great expense when more ethical and effective modes of punishment are readily available.

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