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Chapter 26: Crime, Courts, Drugs & Prisons: What’s wrong and how to fix it

May 20, 2012
“We used to be a free people. Now we are hedged in by millions of laws. Harassed by a plague of opportunistic lawyers. Harmed by regulations meant for our protection. Unnecessarily taxed to pay for a suffocating bureaucracy. Drowning in petty paperwork. Stifled by ‘rights’ that rarely benefit anyone.” —American journalist Joan Beck

 What’s wrong with our crime,

courts, and prison policies

  • Expensive, cumbersome, and overloaded courts. Justice happens too slowly and costs too much. Courts and jails are often overloaded and bogged down by victimless crimes (such as drug use and prostitution), self-serving lawyers, and endless appeals.
  • The government’s war on drugs has been a gigantic failure. We are reliving—on an even bigger and more tragic scale—this nation’s horrible experiment with Prohibition. That’s when the federal government outlawed alcohol—thus creating huge crime problems and wasting precious resources trying unsuccessfully to enforce an unenforceable law. Legalizing alcohol allowed us to control and tax it. We still have some alcoholics, but plenty of nonprofit and nongovernment services are available to help alcoholics and their victims.
  • Greedy lawyers. As mentioned in the “Health Care” chapter, lawyers have distorted a great American justice system beyond recognition. It’s no longer about justice but rather about how lawyers can become richer at the expense of the rest of society.
  • Ineffective prisons. Too many people who go to prison come out with improved criminal skills and have to be imprisoned again later. Too few are prepared to return to society as contributing and law-abiding citizens.
  • Taxpayers are the victims. Taxpayers ultimately pay for the endless misuse of our court system. They provide the courts, judges, prosecutors, and administrators that allow the lawyers to game the system at taxpayer expense.

How to fix our crime, courts,

drugs and prison policies

  • People’s courts (no-lawyers-allowed). Cities, counties, and states could create “people’s courts” in which many cases could be heard without any lawyers being involved. Civil (noncriminal) cases that involve disputes between individuals or companies would be especially appropriate for this system. The judges could be nonlawyers who are more concerned with real justice than legal complexities. Their assignment could be to propose solutions that are fair to both parties. Some trials could be conducted via e-mail at minimal expense. Losers could still have the right to appeal.
  • Loser pays. People would be a lot more cautious about suing one another—and a lot more willing to compromise or accept people’s court decisions—if losers had to bear the cost of the litigation. These costs could include the cost of judges, juries, and administrators (why should taxpayers bear these expenses in private disputes?) as well as the winner’s reasonable lawyer fees.
  • Limit damages. States can set reasonable limits on damages that can be awarded in civil cases, including malpractice suits. (See the “Health Care” chapter for more about this proposal.)
  • Streamline court processes. Many trials could be conducted by judges or smaller juries. Evidence and testimony could be submitted in writing and made available in advance to both sides and to judges and jurors, thus dramatically reducing the amount of time it takes to conduct the trial and reach a verdict. Many trials could be “virtual” to save time and energy as well as reducing legal and court costs.
  • Reduce red tape and regulations. One of the reasons people turn to crime is that it is too difficult to earn a living legally because of government regulations. Minimum wage laws reduce the number of entry-level jobs, making it hard for low-skilled people to start the climb up the economic ladder. Hundreds of occupations require bureaucrat red tape and a government license. You need permission from an astounding number of government agencies to start a business, drive a cab, become a hairdresser, braid hair, polish nails, shine shoes, scalp tickets or sell trinkets from a pushcart. For some people, crime is simply easier than going through all the red tape.
  • Legalize victimless crimes. Just because we think something is bad doesn’t mean it should be illegal. In a truly free society, government should not try to dictate morality. Prostitution, for example, is illegal even when it occurs between two willing adults. The fact that it is illegal drives it underground, creates black markets, enables pimps, and overburdens our police, courts, and jails. And why should suicide be illegal if we are truly free people?
  • End the drug war. It’s time to recognize that freedom includes the right to self-destruct. Ending the war on drugs would pay huge benefits to our society. Legalizing, controlling, and taxing drugs would reduce the cost of drugs and the profit motive of criminal drug dealers. It would unburden our overloaded police, courts, and jails. The reduced costs and new tax revenues would help eliminate the government’s deficit spending too.
  • Eliminate the death penalty. It is dangerous to give any government the power to kill its own citizens. Courts make mistakes, the justice system isn’t perfect, and the death penalty can never be taken back. In addition, the death penalty is often more costly to society than a sentence of life in prison because of the costs of litigation and the decades of appeals.
  • Reduce the cost of law enforcement. We can reduce costs dramatically by legalizing victimless crimes, ending the war on drugs, eliminating the death penalty, and using alternative punishments (such as electronic house arrest) instead of prisons for nonviolent criminals.
  • Negative income tax. Poverty is a major reason for crime. The federal government should replace all its failing poverty programs with a brilliantly simple negative income tax. (See the “Poverty” chapter for more details about this proposal.)
  • Make prisoners work and pay. Law-abiding taxpayers should not be burdened with the cost of punishing criminals. Prisoners should be required to work to pay for their own food, lodging, health care, and privileges (such as television viewing or time outside their cells). Whenever practical, the work made available to inmates could include elements of job training. Those who refuse to work would be making a free choice, and they would be responsible for the consequences. What better way to prepare them for a return to the real world?

“When there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.” —Ayn Rand, author, Atlas Shrugged

 “Legalizing drugs would simultaneously reduce the amount of crime and also raise the quality of law enforcement. Can you conceive of any other measure that would accomplish so much to promote law and order?” —Milton Friedman, economist and author

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