We like to throw people in prison who’ve done things that are against the law. Particularly in felony cases, the sentence to time in prison is a life sentence without recourse — ever.
The felony stays on your record like a scarlet branded on foreheads of sinners 400 years ago. You can’t get a job, can’t get a loan, can’t get a house. You’re doomed to be one of the 12.7 percent of Americans (18 percent of children) who live in perpetual and unrelenting poverty. It’s cruel and unusual punishment, a model not embraced by other civilized societies.
Attorney General Marty Jackley thinks doubling or tripling sentences for meth dealers is the way forward in the "War on Drugs." He’s a law enforcement officer and law enforcement officers, in general, think about things in particular ways. If dealers don’t stop bringing drugs in to South Dakota, the reasoning goes, let’s double the sentence for dealing drugs. That’ll teach ‘em. Some exceptions to this rule are some judges who have to deal with the career-long fall out of such policies.
It’s politically popular way to differentiate yourself from the other candidates who, for the most part, think exactly like you do on everyday issues. If stiffer sentences don’t teach ‘em, the rest of us will be shielded from them in any event and we won’t have to worry about them in our communities. So we think. But is it true?
We could ask China. Their policy is the death penalty for drug dealers. It’s odd. You’d think the death penalty would end drug dealing altogether, but it doesn’t. It seems people who want drugs are going to get drugs. Death for one dealer simply opens a business opportunity for a small business person to fill and the drugs flow.
Death is actually a cleaner and less costly alternative than Jackley is proposing. Let’s just hang ‘em, Old West-style, at the Promenade and Legacy Commons, and be done with it — until the next one is caught. Then, we hang that one, and so on and so on. Nobody has to pay for food and housing that occur during lengthy prison terms. Nobody has to deal with unemployable convicted felons. Nobody has to feel sorry for the lifetime of poverty and need felons face after they are released. And it’s their own fault they got in trouble. The benefits are legion.
In the political calculus of our day, finding low-hanging fruit like meth sentencing and taxes makes sense in a perverse way. I’ll show them I have backbone by hammering those who are already on the edge of self-destruction. I’ll legislate sentences that punish not only felons, but everybody associated with them — friends, family, taxpayers. Life sentences all around.
Why not go the extra green mile and make it a life sentence or the much more cost-effective death penalty? Death would be kinder to the condemned. Since they are now doomed to an irrevocable course of poverty and desperation, charge stacking and recidivism, or struggle and survival at the mercy of the state, why not just figure on sentencing them, jailing them, then feeding and sheltering them until they die? Or just get rid of them. Maybe the Chinese have something there.
In the meantime, we’d do well to be very skeptical of Jackley’s proposal to simply increase prison terms. That policy hasn’t worked for us at any level. We keep getting deeper and deeper into the quagmire of failing to deal with social and psychological issues that require long-term treatment for people in need. Beware of simple political solutions to complex problems.