Today on the radio a DJ posed the question: Should the guy who was driving the snowmobile when news anchor Randy Salerno was killed be sent to prison? The responses to the non-scientific survey were split about 60-40 against prison-time.
I'm with the "no's" on this one for this reason: Since the crime he committed was, arguably, a non-violent offense (even though it resulted in a tragic death), it does not serve to protect society or "pay back" the family for their loss to put the guy in jail.
A better way to serve justice in this case would be to a) prohibit him from ever driving a snowmobile again; b) require him to do some kind of alchohol education or rehab program; and c) require him to perform community service, such as spending a year traveling around the country doing speaking engagements to high schools, colleges, and other groups to talk about the consequences of drinking and driving any kind of vehicle.
And this raises a broader set of questions with implications that reach well beyond the criminal justice system: Why should non-violent offenders be imprisoned? Wouldn't it make more sense for them to pay their debt to society and their victims by performing some kind of service that relates to the crime they committed?
This approach--the logical consequence approach to non-violent criminal justice--has many advantages. It reduces prison over-crowding. It saves the state money; and in fact, some of the logical consequences could actually generate revenue which could be used to offset the costs involved in prosecuting the case.
I'll bet that logical consequences result in lower recidivism rates than do prison sentences. In other words, you're less likely to end up back in the criminal justice system after doing community service than you are after serving time in prison. Google turned up a study in Finland that demonstrated "slightly lower" recidivism rates after community service than after prison sentences.
These are not new ideas, of course. (There is nothing new under the sun--Ecclesiastes.) Prison Fellowship International calls it "restorative justice" and has been advocating for these kinds of changes in the criminal justice system for a long time through its Centre for Justice and Reconciliation. Restorative justice emphasizes "repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behaviour. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders."
So if these ideas have been around a long time, and international agencies are advocating for these kinds of changes, why are we still putting non-violent offenders in prison? Why aren't we offering treatment to drug abusers instead of putting them behind bars? Why are we putting people who commit white-collar crimes in prison instead of having them teach principles of financial management in urban high schools?