The number of people locked up inside NZ’s prisons is at a record high: a record 8,509 New Zealanders are imprisoned for doing things they shouldn’t have (compared with around 5000 in 1996/97, and up from 8493 on September 7), and folk are starting to ask questions like: “Where are they all going to go?”
Fair question, but it’s leaping ahead a little. Here’s a question it might be worth answering first: What’s the primary purpose of the prison system? I ask that, because to answer it is to solve the overcrowding problem.
So what is the primary purpose of the prison system? Answer: It’s not rehabilitation; if that happens, and it rarely does, then so much the better – but it’s not the primary purpose. And it’s not punishment; sure, we don’t want to see anybody gain from their crimes against others, but “an eye for an eye” solves nothing, does it – except perhaps as a deterrent.
And how effective has the deterrent been? With record numbers incarcerated, you’d have to say that’s going pretty bloody poorly. And a fixation on taking eyes does leave everyone blind to what prison is really about.
So what is the primary purpose of the prison system then? Well, it goes back to the very purpose of government:
“Every individual has the right to use force for lawful self-defence. It is for this reason that the collective force – which is only the organised combination of the individual forces – may lawfully be used for the same purpose; and it cannot be used legitimately for any other purpose.” (Frédéric Bastiat)
“If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules.
This is the task of government–of a proper government—it’s basic task, its only moral justification and the reason why mean do need a government.
“A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—ie., under objectively defined laws.” [Ayn Rand]
So what does that mean about the primary purpose of the prison system? It means that its primary purpose is to protect us from those who’ve enacted force or fraud against others.
If some folk demonstrate that they’re prepared to take away a victim’s rights, then ipso facto their own rights should be equally forfeit. That’s fair, right? And if they’re prepared to make that person a victim, then we’re entitled to ensure they don’t take other victims as well.
So the primary purpose is protection. We lock them up for our self-defence. But how does this solve the overcrowding problem?
The question really answers itself. If you draw a distinction between people who’ve been locked up simply for doing things they “shouldn’t have” and people who’ve done things to other people that they shouldn’t have, then you have a group (the former one) who deserves to be released. That is, draw a distinction between those who’ve committed crimes with actual victims and those who haven’t – i.e., those who need to be locked up for our self-defence, and those who don’t – and release the poor folk who’ve committed no crime other than one arbitrarily so defined by the government.
Even the most conservative figures suggest that group includes around ten to twenty percent of the present prison population. Find them, release them, and you can can stop talking about overcrowding for another electoral cycle – and you can begin to take those victimless crimes off the books so that people guilty of nothing other than hurting themselves don’t start filling up those places again.