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COL Crime requires punishment

Crime could be considered "an enemy from within." Crime is up. Punishment is down. Rehabilitation is still in. But has the rehabilitation of criminals been effective? I don't think so. Let's look at some facts.

The FBI recently reported the crime index increased 2.1 percent last year. Lumping violent crimes against people, including murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault, and three crimes against property -- burglary, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft -- the bureau reported there were 4,160 crimes per 100,000 people, committed last year. The U.S. population estimate as of July 1, 2002 was 284 million. By my calculation that means 11,814,400 crimes were committed last year.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates one out of every 20 Americans will be arrested for committing a crime sometime during their lifetime, or 5.1 percent of us. That's a lot of crime, even when the 17,000 reporting law enforcement agencies like to report that trends were down over the last few decades.

Although our arrest rates have climbed steadily since 1970, the number of arrests is still pitifully low. Law enforcement agencies are certainly trying to stop these crimes. Why, then, isn't their effort achieving greater success?

I suppose there are many reasons, but here is my theory -- lack of punishment. In the last century we adopted the theory that rehabilitation was better than, and/or complementary to, punishment, because we could return a criminal to society as a potential contributor -- one who has paid his debt to society, and one who would be deterred from committing future crimes. But the facts don't seem to support the theory. Of 272,111 criminal releases in 15 states in 1994, 67.5 percent were re-arrested on serious misdemeanor and felony charges.

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Rehabilitation just doesn't work. Televisions and air conditioning and telephones and weight rooms and conjugal visits don't work. Shortening sentences under current conditions, without harsh punishment, logically won't work either. What I think will work to deter a criminal's future intent is very harsh punishment.

How would it work? One way would be to take away all the amenities of prison life -- all of them, particularly the athletic equipment. I don't want a bigger, stronger, better-connected criminal at the end of his term. I want a weaker, more humble survivor of absolute punishment, who never, ever wants to return to the harshness of prison life. This theory might work, but who would support such a drastic cultural change?

First of all prisoners, particularly minorities and their families, would be better served if their sentences were slashed considerably. A huge percentage of our prison population is made up of minority inmates, many on drug-related charges. Secondly, taxpayers would benefit by reduced time in prison, which means less operational costs, including the amenities, and reduced construction costs for new and expanded prison facilities. And don't forget about the salaries of all those "counselors." There are billions of dollars to be saved by punishing our prisoners, rather than spending billions but failing to rehabilitate them.

Why is an old army colonel writing about this? Because I think a nation that sends more than 5 percent of its young men and women to jail has a homeland defense vulnerability, a weakness of character that can only be repaired with good, old-fashioned discipline. Crime is an enemy within and must be brought under control. We need to ensure that the punishment fits the crime, not the rehabilitation.

Shaver is a retired army officer and former tenured faculty member of the U.S. Army War College. He can be reached dshaver630@aol.com.

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