An Argument for Eliminating Most U.S. Prisons

Peter Salib, a U.S. appellate court law clerk, says prisons are a very inefficient way to punish and deter crimes. He suggests other approaches that let criminals pay back their debt to society without forcing taxpayers to pay for their full confinement. interviews Peter Salib, a law clerk for Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Frank Easterbrook, who argues that prisons are a very inefficient way to punish and deter crimes. Research shows that long prison sentences have little impact on crime, and a stint in prison can actually make someone more likely to commit crime by exposing them to all sorts of criminal elements. At the same time, prisons are incredibly costly, eating up funds that could go to other government programs that are more effective at fighting crime. Salib suggests alternative approaches to punishment that can let someone pay their debt back to society without forcing taxpayers to shoulder the burden of paying for full confinement.

Salib gives the example of an accountant who burns down an office building. Instead of locking him up for decades, Salib suggests keeping an eye on him through other means, such as GPS monitoring, and forcing him to work as an accountant to pay back the cost of the office building. This would, he argues, be better for everyone involved; the building owner gets paid back for the damage, and society pays much less to confine this person. Asked how to punish a murderer, Salib says, “As much of that punishment as possible should be paid in the form of money instead of a form of discomfort, confinement, or things that can’t be transferred. As far as we’re imposing costs on bad actors like murderers, it’s senseless to destroy wealth when we could make those people generate wealth and give it to their victims or give it to their governments. That’s not to fully say we’ll ever fully compensate the family of a murder victim … there’s no sense in having them lose a loved one and then giving them nothing, because we’ve locked up the person who did it.”