When we’ve been bad little boys and naughty little girls — or rather, when we’ve been caught being bad or naughty — the government has two main ways it likes to get even: it takes our money or it takes our freedom. Run a stoplight; your penance is some cash. Run a stoplight naked, they take you to the clink. That’s our criminal justice system in a nutshell.

When we’ve been bad little boys and naughty little girls — or rather, when we’ve been caught being bad or naughty — the government has two main ways it likes to get even: it takes our money or it takes our freedom. Run a stoplight; your penance is some cash. Run a stoplight naked, they take you to the clink. That’s our criminal justice system in a nutshell.


Like most recipes designed by bureaucrats and cooked over the slow heat of decades, it’s an outdated, unfair system that makes little-to-no sense. Take prison, for instance.


Of course, we need prisons. There are dangerous individuals who’ve lived hard lives and are too far gone to be rehabilitated, and society needs a place to keep them. But of the 2.2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States, violent criminals comprise only about a quarter.


More than half of those in prison are there on drug charges, and even if you disagree that the War on Drugs has been a colossal failure — even if you disagree that a government can’t legislate-away market demand — it would be difficult to argue that the best situation for a coke fiend is to be roomies with a cold-blooded killer.


What internment amounts to in most cases, then, is time-out for grown-ups. "Shame on you, caught smoking that doobie! Now, go sit in the corner for four-to-six years, next to the guy with the swastika tattoo on his forehead."


It’s the stuff of lazy parenting, and here we are leaning on the same logic as the lynchpin in our criminal justice system.


Then on the other end of the spectrum, we enforce laws by taking away people’s allowance. A mom with a van full of screaming kids rolls through a stop sign at an empty intersection because she’s running late, and Barney hits her with a $300 ticket. Does that accomplish society’s ostensible goal of correcting her future behavior? Yes, probably, for a time. Until the sting of losing a week’s pay wears off, anyway.


But it’s an unfair and ultimately ineffective method of punishment. First of all, it’s horribly regressive — fining people for bad behavior allows the rich to break laws with greater impunity than the poor. What’s a $300 ticket to a stockbroker? A pair of wingtips?


And while I’m on record supporting smaller, more localized government, hiking the fee schedules for misdemeanors is a time-honored tradition for cash-strapped city councils. People might get their hackles up over higher taxes, but nobody ever filibustered on behalf of those who forgot to use their blinker. Which means the punishment in most towns rarely fits the crime.


A better, more equitable system of criminal justice would start with the mass roll-back of endless government rules that seek to control so much of our daily lives. But short of that, paying some attention to the "punishment" side of the equation would go a long way toward improving things, too.


Sending murderers, rapists and child molesters to prison is noncontroversial enough. But what if, for lesser transgressions, the government stopped reaching into our pockets and instead required us to reach out to our fellow man?


What good could be accomplished in a community that threw out fines and fees and replaced them with community service? There’s already a precedent for forced volunteerism in response to serious crimes, so why not extend that to things like speeding?


Imagine getting pulled over for doing 55 in a 54 and receiving a citation requiring you to spend an hour cleaning litter or feeding the homeless or making your community better in some other way. It would be better for your town, for your bank account and probably better for you as a person.


It would be worse, however, for the municipal court’s bottom line, and that, my friend, is why it’ll never happen.


A ticket is just an accounting entry for everyone but you.


NATE STRAUCH is a reporter and columnist with the Herald Democrat. Email him at nstrauch@heralddemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter @NStrauchHD.