It's a startling statistic: One out of every 32 adults in America last year was either behind bars, or on probation, or on parole. That amounts to 6.6 million people-up 150,000 or 2.3 percent from the year before. Average annual growth in that category between 1995 and 2001 was 3.6 percent.
So, I thought, since no one else seems able to get a handle on this tough societal problem, I'd head back to my favorite place for social research. I'd hang out for a couple of hours at the entrance to Wal-Mart, and ask several dozen typical American shoppers what they'd do. How can we cut down on those dreadful numbers?
Over a couple of hours, I deliberately talked to 32 adults. As I did so, I kept asking myself: Which one of the 32 looked most like a jailbird? Indeed, after asking my standard question of each person, I also asked: "Have you ever served time in jail or prison?" Three said they had.
By far the most radical idea came from Fred, a big and good-natured fellow who said he was a sheriff's deputy. "Expand capital punishment to a lot more offenses," he said nonchalantly. Like what? Well, maybe things like running red lights, forgetting to declare your income from a babysitting job last spring on your income tax, or falling behind on your alimony. If you just executed all those people, Fred said, it sure would cut the prison population by a significant percentage. Statistically, of course, he was right. But my research was not off to a promising start.
My next few respondents did a better job of reflecting society's typical answers to the prison problem. Here's what a few of them said:
Adele, who last spring quit teaching fourth grade in a public school after 26 years, suggested the government should be spending a great deal more money and energy on re-education. "Most of these folks are dropouts from school. Now I bet most of them-or a least a lot of them-have learned their lesson. If they could get a diploma or a degree, most of them would stay on the straight and narrow. At least I hope they would," she added with a half-doubting grimace.
Not nearly as tough-minded as Fred, but still headed in the same general direction, was Charles, who said he was sick and tired of sending criminals off to country-club settings. "Is that just a picture you have in your mind, or have you actually been there?" I asked. "You'd better believe I've been there," he told me, to visit a cousin who had passed some fraudulent checks. "He lived in nicer digs than I do," Charles huffed. "And I have to pay for them!"
Marie's gripe is with shutting up white-collar criminals where they can do nothing to make good on their crimes. "They ought to be out there earning what they stole and paying it back," she said. "The way we're doing it now, we have to pay for them. They should be paying us." And with Enron, WorldCom, and all the others, Marie pointed out, there must be a lot of white-collar criminals in prison these days.
Leslie, who told me she is a paralegal, says the lawyers she works for have no respect at all for the whole system of minimum sentencing. "It's tying the hands of judges."
One idea I didn't hear though, either in front of Wal-Mart or in the learned journals, was this: Not a single person talked about the righteous living that keeps people out of jail in the first place. No one talked about the fact that Gideon Bibles are permissible in prisons, but not in schools. Nobody mentioned what might happen if in those Bibles, folks started reading seriously lines that promised: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers."
Sadly, vast segments of American society are devoted these days to repair work. It seems a lot less popular to apply yourself to building things right in the first place.