Live for a while and someone you know is likely to go to prison.
Indeed, since the late 1970s, incarceration is one thing at which we’ve really excelled. Only Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, with a population about that of Lee’s Summit, incarcerates its people at a higher rate than the U.S., according to the International Centre for Prison Studies.
A September study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed the U.S. prison population, both state and federal, stood at 1,574,700 on Dec. 31, 2013, an increase of 4,300 prisoners from the year before.
We got here largely by using prison not only for people we’re afraid of, but also for people we’re mad at, to paraphrase a saying popular in reform circles.
Someone certainly was mad at Jon, a nonviolent, first-time offender who just finished a sentence of five years and 10 months in federal prison. (I’m not completely identifying him here because he’ll have problems enough finding work now that he’s home. He doesn’t need me throwing up more roadblocks.)
His crime? Building and distributing electronic boxes knowing that other people, downstream of his company, would use them to steal premium cable TV.
A jury also convicted him of “currency structuring,” which is keeping his cash transactions below $10,000 each to avoid having a bank send a report to banking regulators. (That law is supposed to make money laundering more difficult, but Jon wasn’t charged with money laundering.)
Now, Jon was guilty of these crimes. And knowingly helping others steal intellectual property deserves criminal sanction. But did we really need to be protected from Jon, at a cost of about $30,000 a year, by locking him away at an expensive federal prison?
Even intensive probation supervision would have cost a fraction of that.
Of course, sentencing systems have lots of moving parts, making them resistant to change: Congress and state legislatures write laws, prosecutors use discretion, judges apply law to the facts.
Cutting breaks for white-collar criminals, such as Jon, while hammering poor defendants with long drug sentences would neither be politically popular nor morally defensible.
But we’ve dug this hole deep and wide. Figuring out a rational penalty for helping others steal HBO should be easy. Maybe that would limber us up for the hard work of keeping nonviolent first-timers out of prison, while sending away the violent and predatory knuckleheads who deserve it.
It’s a start.