The term ‘penitentiary’ comes from an old Puritan ideal whereby a person who has committed a sin or crime should go to a solitary place to think about their wrongs and become penitent. Then they could hopefully return to society a restored person. I’m not sure how much of that philosophy still resides within the criminal justice system. Going back as far as I have ever heard, the severity of the crime dictates the length of time a person might enjoy being locked up.
In more recent years we’ve thought that it might be a good idea to provide educational, counseling and vocational resources to those in prison, with the hope that they might come out a little better than they went in. One would have to believe that this move has been worth something. Of course, a large portion of the people in prison are there on charges related to drug sale or abuse, so wouldn’t it make a lot more sense (and cost a lot less money) to get them into readily accessible treatment programs before they run afoul of the law? In the end, far too many inmates leave the system to become better criminals.
What if we were to stop sentencing on the basis of ‘time’, and start sentencing on the basis of objectives? So after a person was convicted, they would be evaluated by a team of professionals who would put together a list of goals appropriate to their situation, that the prisoner would need to achieve. The more severe the crime, the more lengthy the list of objectives. The sentence would always begin with a period of time in a not-so-very-pleasant prison facility. Any time that they stopped progressing on their objectives, they would return to this facility.
They would be responsible for large aspects of their lives. They would get themselves out of bed and ready for their day. They would be responsible to be where they are suppose to be, doing what they are suppose to be doing at the time that they are suppose to be doing it … no baby sitting. Anyone who worked their objectives might get through the system a good bit faster than current sentences. Even after they left their facility, they would need to be responsible to a group of peers who would help with their reentry into the community. Even then, if they didn’t work the program, they could end up back in the ‘big house’. There may be some number of inmates generally unwilling or incapable of being responsible enough to take the steps. We would simply need to provide accommodations for them until they changed their mind … or died. All of these things hinge on a person’s ability to take responsibility for themselves.
Just a thought … DonC