In the twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court greatly developed criminal constitutional rights favoring the accused. A backlash ensued, and the campaign for victims’ rights followed. Advocates for crime victims supported increased incarceration by encouraging three-strikes habitual offender and mandatory sentence legislation. This was a good attempt to refocus upon people other than the offenders. Some believe victims’ rights went too far by putting too many people in prison. In actuality, victims’ rights did not go far enough. Prison labor to pay restitution is rarely allowed, required or encouraged by the laws, special interest groups and systems in place. The way to serve a determinate sentence (i.e. one for a set term of years) in prison is to wait. While prisoners kill time, prisons deprive most prisoners of a major part of life, namely work, while prisons also deprive victims and the state of the benefit of the prisoner’s labor. Convicts often walk out of prison with heavy debts for child support, court costs, legal representation and restitution, most of which they cannot discharge in bankruptcy. After release, restitution collection prospects turn dim. Most convicts never fully pay their debts to society, their victims or their own families.
The shallow statement we hear that ex-convicts have “paid their debt to society” is completely false and very misleading. All they’ve done is wait, age, sleep, eat, shower, obey, suffer, receive benefits and cost money. The words “paid their debt to society” are lip service to our failed correctional regimes. Prisoners have not worked for, honored or paid law-abiding folks. The “payment” they supposedly make does not help anyone, and in fact, it harms society. While in prison, prisoners are on expensive and comprehensive welfare that pays for everything they consume or need. Prisoners unfortunately believe they have “paid up” when their sentence is concluded. Prisoners deserve their punishment, but law-abiding citizens do not deserve the expense, collateral social costs, recidivism and weak deterrence value of prison. It’s time for law-abiding people to be paid in cash, not empty phrases. Part of a new movement should be the right of victims to receive the benefit of their guilty perpetrators’ labor.
To produce economically and generate a cash flow for their victims, prisoners must be allowed to work in private prison industries, operating freely in prison. Prisons made money in the 1800’s and sent their profits to the state legislatures. Over 100 years ago, free labor and businesses were afraid prisoners would put them out of work and business, so prison industries were suppressed with various laws. Under current laws, most prisoners can only make things for the state and there are not enough prison jobs to go around.
Today, most consumer goods are made overseas. Manufactured goods can now be made in the U.S.A. without harming, and actually helping, free American labor and businesses. If American laws were changed to permit vibrant prison industries, prisoners could earn money to compensate their victims and society. Then prisoners can truly pay their debts to society and to the victims of their crimes. Under equitable laws, crime victims should receive the benefit of their guilty perpetrators’ labor.