Years ago, while interviewing a young inmate who was serving a sentence for running a red light while drunk, and crashing into a car carrying an elderly couple and killing them both, he said to me, ‘Two more years and I will have paid my debt to society.’

The crime had been committed when he was under 21. By the end of his term he would’ve served something like 5 or 6 years.

There was something very wrong with what he had said. And the law permitted it.

The thought stayed with me.

There has to be a better way.

Killing someone is killing someone. The killed are gone. To be with us no more, while the responsible party has life ahead.

Is it fair?

Step into a prison for a visit – which I highly recommend – and you’ll be struck by the mass of people stuck in cells, mostly doing nothing constructive, men and women in their prime just waiting for their terms to expire.

Well, I say we’ve got this wrong.

Suppose Jim kills Pete in a robbery or for some other reason.

Jim has a debt to society and to Pete and his family. And he needs to pay it.

But how does being idle in a prison cell improve Jim’s ability to pay his debt?

It does not. But if he was educating himself to make a living or start a business, then the time incarcerated would be well spent. Upon release, Jim would be able to earn money and begin the process of making reparations.

How long would Jim have to make reparations? Forever.

The size of the reparations would vary depending on the income Jim can generate, but the debt incurred is to last a lifetime. And so with other offenses, like rape and child molestation.

While Jim is in prison, the State is investing in his education, an education that allows him to buy his freedom, but he has to pay it back.

Jim doesn’t want to work? Then he goes back to prison.

Jim will need more than an education to become a responsible citizen. He will need psychological treatment to address the impulsivity, poor judgment, addictions etc. that led to his killing Pete.

The State needs to invest in that. And then Jim pays back to the victim’s family for the rest of his life.

What Jim doesn’t need is to be rotting in a cell wasting his potential capabilities.

The State ought to have an obligation to create the conditions that lead to forming responsible citizens.

Keeping people idle in confinement is no way to do that.

Somehow, though, certain societal forces have prevailed to insist that punishment is more important than education. I believe the influence of the Church has played an oversize role in this, but I leave that to others to determine. The emphasis on punishment, however, needs to be changed to one stressing the educational and psychological rehabilitation of the offender.

The length of time Jim would have to stay in prison for killing Pete would depend on his response to psychological treatment and his eagerness to acquire productive skills. Departments of Psychiatry, Psychology and Social work from local universities could be enlisted to contribute to the effort.

After sufficient progress has been made, then Jim would appear before a board made of fellow citizens, the composition of which would vary just as with the selection of a jury (not like presently, where these boards are stacked with law enforcement). The citizens would hear the evidence proposing his release and a decision would be made: Return to society or remain in prison for more constructive work, education, work skills and psychological assistance.

But the incentive would always be there, work hard and you will earn your freedom, a freedom that is to remain conditional on the payment of reparations for a lifetime (for certain offenses).

The notion of buying one’s freedom bother you?

We do it every day. Every single day, when we set out to earn a living, we are buying our freedom. Choose to not make the effort? Then we won’t be able to pay the rent and will have to hit the streets. Is that freedom?

You decide.

Whatever societal forces have shaped the current state of how we deal with crime have not satisfactorily addressed the issue, neither morally nor economically.

Locking up young people in their productive prime is of no benefit to the nation.

It may, in the minds of some, satisfy a desire for vengeance, but that is not making us a better country.

People need hope.

A case can be made that those who have failed, like Jim, did not get the benefit of strong formative forces as they were growing up. If so, while in prison, the State has a chance to make up for its share of responsibility to deliver a fully engaged citizen.

Jim, on the other hand, has to contend with why he failed as a person.

Do we, as a society, keep supporting a system that emphasizes punishment?

Or do we reshape the institution to stress education, personal growth and the earning of one’s freedom to live a worthwhile life and, on the way, pay back those we injured or killed.

Oscar Valdes is the author of Psychiatrist for A Nation, the prison novel Walk Through Your Shadows and other books. Available on Amazon.

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