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The American Penal System

( Originally Published 1916 )

IT is hard, it is almost impossible, for advocates of a change in custom or government to get out from under a charge which has worn down to a platitude.

The average man refuses to think, when he can get his thinking ready-made.

For instance, we, who believe that prisons and punishments are wrong, are generally classed with the sentimental perverts who pet criminals, with the women who carry bouquets to murderers, weep over the sad lot of burglars that have been justly laid by the heels, and want to feed them pie.

Allow us, therefore, to clearly state our point of view.

We are not opposed to the present prison system because of pity for jail birds. We are sorry for them, as any human being is sorry to witness suffering, but if their punishment were good for them or for society at large we would gladly applaud their stripes.

But our position is this : that THE FACTS IN THE CASE PROVE beyond any reasonable doubt that the theory of punishment is both impotent for good and fruitful of evil.

Why do we punish a thief or robber, for ex-ample? For three reasons only.

First, to protect the community against him. We incarcerate him, shave his head, put him at hard labor, isolate him, or even hang him, so that innocent citizens may be safe from his pernicious activities.

Second, we punish him to "teach him a lesson," to change him and make him an honest man.

Third, it is also to give an example to other evildoers and by fear to dissuade them from crime.

All very well. The only trouble is, that sending a man to the penitentiary does NOT result in any of these benefits.

As a rule, which any intelligent prison keeper will verify, the convict who has served his time comes back to society A WORSE CRIMINAL THAN WHEN HE WENT TO PRISON. From being an ordinary man, who committed a crime by impulse, he has become a member of the hardened criminal class and is a greater menace to the common-wealth than ever.

As a rule, instead of prison changing him to an honest man, it MAKES HIM A MORE VICIOUS MAN. It destroys the little good character he had.

And, as a rule, instead of his punishment deterring others it psychologically DEVELOPS MORE CRIMINALS.

Why, therefore, keep up a system that is proved by experience and reason to work precisely contrary to what we expected it to work?

It is a pleasure to note that the more intelligent of the lawyers themselves are with us. At least they cannot be accused of maudlin sentimentality. At a recent meeting of the American Bar Association, at Montreal, at which session William H. Taft was chosen president, Mr. Moorfield Storey of Massachusetts declared the American penal system a failure.

"Our prisons are manufactories of criminals, and it is time we changed our whole method of dealing with convicts," he said.

"All convicted persons should be turned over to a commission charged with full responsibility for their care and custody under an indeterminate sentence, with authority to release them at such time and on such terms as would guarantee their future harmlessness to society.


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