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American Prison System: A Libertarian Perspective

Who's the Real Criminal?

Written by Geoffrey Pike
Posted February 16, 2015

prisonnationThe Vera Institute of Justice released a report in February detailing the misuse of jails in America.

Unfortunately, many Americans believe jail is a place just for the really bad people in society. They don’t realize that the so-called criminals are often not like what we think.

Nicholas Turner, the president of the Vera Institute of Justice, stated that even he was jolted by some of the findings in the Institute’s report. He didn’t realize “the extent to which unconvicted people in this country are held in jail simply because they are too poor to pay what it costs to get out.”

While jails certainly serve a valid purpose in society – mainly keeping people who are likely to commit a serious crime again from doing so – American jails have gone way beyond that. They are made up of people who have not committed violent acts, who are unlikely to be repeat offenders, and who are sometimes just mentally ill.

The most frustrating part for those who value liberty is the number of people sent to jail for victimless crimes. This can include things such as using drugs or prostitution. Even insider trading and tax evasion are essentially victimless crimes, unless you want to argue that the politicians are victims of not getting access to the money.

As the report detailed, there are consequences, often unseen, that go along with sending someone to prison. It can damage a person’s reputation. It can damage a person’s spirit. Someone who is incarcerated is statistically going to earn less money in the future, even years after being released.

These are often for petty crimes where the person being convicted is little threat to society. It is important to realize that someone can still be punished for a wrongful act without necessarily locking them up.


We live in a perverse system, and this goes for those who are incarcerated and also the victims.

If someone steals money from you, without explicitly using violence or threatening to use violence, what is the purpose of locking him up? There is certainly an argument that it is a deterrent. It may or may not be for certain people.

But then you are going to lock up the perpetrator and the taxpayers will have to pay for his stay in jail.

The victim himself, who already had money stolen, now has to “contribute” to housing the criminal in jail. You could say that the victim is being victimized twice, once by the individual criminal and again by the government. Unfortunately for the victim, the government isn’t going to stop taxing.

Wouldn’t it make more sense if the criminal could pay some form of restitution? Wouldn’t it be better if he kept working and had a certain percentage of his wages garnished and sent back to the victim? He could essentially be forced to pay back his victim, plus damages, for pain and suffering.

At the very least, why not at least make this an option for the victim and the criminal? If the victim would rather get compensated instead of having his tax money go towards housing the criminal, then why shouldn’t he have this option?

We are not talking about murderers here, although even here we can envision where the murderer might be able to pay some form of compensation to the victim’s family. This should be the purpose of jail though. It is to keep the murderer from going out and doing it again.

With that said, we can be sure that something is wrong with the system when a large percentage of the jail population are those with mental disabilities. We are supposed to be a civilized society and many of these people really deserve better.

I am not claiming to have all of the solutions here, but we can be sure that there is a major problem with the jail system in America that needs to be addressed.

The jails in the United States hold about 731,000 people on any given day – about the size of a moderately big city. Much of this population really doesn’t deserve to be there. If we are to live in a truly free society, this number must go down significantly and it must start with more awareness from the American people.

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