A Modest Proposal To Combat Overcriminalization: Imprison Lawmakers
Term limits are a way of circulating elites in a political system. We fear that should folks serve in positions of power too long they'll lose touch with the broader currents pulsating in a society. Yet term limits impose a cost: experience matters. If we impose term limits do we deprive ourselves of the leadership of those best able to manage our affairs? Doesn't it take time and wisdom to learn how to govern?
I have a proposal designed to improve the criminal justice system. No lawmaker should be able to seek re-election to a third term unless he or she agrees to serve six months in prison.
The benefits of such a system should be obvious to everyone.
Lawmakers churn out additions to the penal code annually. When they are not adding new offenses, they are extending the length of sentences for offenses already defined. A congressman or a state legislator has great power to set the terms and conditions under which increasing numbers of Americans live. Indeed, the penal code is now so vast and complex that we are almost all criminals at least part of the time. When everyone breaks the law, the rule of law breaks down as prosecutors acquire the discretion to pick and choose whom to punish.
Lawmakers tinker with the penal code without much comprehension of the real cost of what they are doing. Let's spread the pain a little, I say. Let's make sure the good men and women so quick to throw the book at folks taste a little of their own medicine.
The fact is that the American criminal justice system is savage. We imprison a greater percentage of our population than any other industrialized nation. And the sentences we impose for all manner of offenses are staggeringly long. We've transformed the penal system, some say, into a human waste management program: Those folks we cannot integrate into society we isolate. Forget rehabilitation as a goal of imprisonment. Today the goal is to isolate and incapacitate. We boast of our unique qualities as a society without ever pausing to consider how we can tolerate the waste of so much human potential.
I've seen teenagers sentenced to twenty years for drug sales. A snap act of violence can yield 30, 40, 50 years or more. Do we really believe that these sentences serve any social utility? Aren't they really a hypocritical concession of failure?
I am confused, frankly. I watch the great rush to enact new and harsher laws against sex offenders, for example, and I wonder: how has the human race survived the ascent from ape to this, the most rational of all possible worlds? I don't recall as a young man learning my way in the world that I should be afraid of every stranger, that I should be wary of things going bump in the night if I sat on an uncle's lap, that desire was so unbounded that every embrace was a libidinal trap. We're in the midst of a semi-literate moral panic where we cannot make the world safe enough for children. We're so infatuated with this vision of safety, we're rushing to create a utopia. Unfortunately, as readers of political philosophy know, utopia means, literally, "no place."
What impulse leaders lawmakers to sacrifice thousands of men and women to ideals that bear such faint correspondence to reality? Is it because it feels good to enact a new law? Or is it worse? Does every mob need a leader, someone to stoke hysteria when anxiety is unbounded? The past 100 years have seen great moral energy placed into prohibiting things: alcohol, Communists, drugs, wayward libido. But in each case, the law crashes against walls it cannot over come. After a generation or so of social slaughter, lawmakers back off, regroup, and accept what they cannot change: the mass of men really do lead lives of quiet desperation. I wonder, sometimes, whether the sin of Sloth, the inability to perceive some larger spiritual vision of a good, but flawed, society, has not led us to become moral monsters forever chasing some caricature of the good.
So I say require lawmakers to live in the holes into which they consign so many Americans. It's not such an onerous suggestion, really. No one is forcing a lawmaker to pack his bags for a stay in the Hotel Despair. A lawmaker can walk away from power and its perquisites after a few terms. But if the hunger for power remains, then let power face the stark reality of what it can do to a man or woman: put the lawmaker away and deprive him of the liberty to hug his wife, kiss his child or dream the modest dreams that console his constituents.
I suspect a lawmakers fresh from a bid in a penitentiary will come to view a ten-year sentence as plenty long and sufficient to punish most crimes. And I doubt that many men and woman who have actually heard a prison door close behind them will be so quick to think that locking someone up actually accomplishes anything of value.