With obvious reservations — you can easily fill them in — I must say, I’m
not sure the ABA is wrong. There surely are far too many people in jail.
And conservatives don’t think about this anything like as much as we should.
Historically speaking, the idea that you punish someone by locking him away
for a long but prescribed spell is pretty recent. There were, for example,
no jails in Republican Rome. For miscreants, it was either exile, or a
two-and-a-half-with-tuck off the Tarpeian rock.
In fact, the range of punishments throughout human history has gone
something like this, in order of overall popularity:
—Humiliation (e.g. the stocks in pre-modern England)
Confiscation of property was also widely practised, but was obviously no use
against propertyless people.
We have become too squeamish for some of these. I don’t see the cutting off
of noses, for example, making a comeback any time soon. And in a society
with freedom of movement, it’s tough to make exile work. You end up having
to restrain the exilee from drifting home, so it becomes a form of remote
incarceration. It seems to me that flogging and humiliation might be
revived in limited forms, though. As squeamish as we are, our squeamishness
is very selective. We balk at a ten-minute flogging, but apparently don’t
mind shutting people up for years in places that, from all the accounts I
have read, closely resemble Hell.
Prisons, a prison officer once told me, contain “the sad, the bad, and the
mad.” For the first and last, at least, it’s hard to believe we can’t do
more than we are doing to change their lives. And the second might be
discouraged from their wickedness by other means than incarceration.
Conservatives — especially Christian conservatives, who believe in
redemption — ought to be able to think and talk about this without slipping
into that Leftist “society’s fault,” “we are all guilty!” and “root causes”
blather that we so often, and correctly, mock.