- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 3, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It almost goes without saying that the human brain is a remarkable computing machine. It stores everything weve ever heard or seen and can process more than 2 million bits of information per second on average. But with so much potential to affect the world, it is imperative that the brain is directed toward constructive activities. If left in the wrong hands, the brains potential for harm is equally as powerful.

This is why it is good to have structured, planned activities for developing minds, so that as people’s brains develop, they also are guided toward doing the right things. One amazing feature of the human mind is its ability to learn from the observed behavior of others. Thats why exposing our children to role models who demonstrate the appropriate use of that intellect can only benefit society at large. The same is true of individuals who have been incarcerated for illegal activities.

The recidivism rate in U.S. prisons is alarmingly high, especially given the lengthy sentences that the justice system increasingly has given out. One would think that going to prison for a long time would be a disincentive for crime. But the problem is that when criminals go into prison, they are warehoused with other criminals and have to become better criminals to survive in that environment. Prison should not just be a place to punish people by taking away their freedom. Its just too expensive an option to house more than 2 million people (roughly the current U.S. incarceration rate) at a cost of more than $150 billion annually.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Plata brought this home. California was infamous for its “three strikes” law - a punitive measure that many credit with significantly reducing crime in the state in the past 20 years. Though the immediate issue is whether prison overcrowding violates prisoners rights - the court ruled that it does - the real issue is money. California, a state with a huge budget gap and declining tax revenues, just cant afford to pay for housing and medical care for such a large prison population. The Supreme Courts decision paved the way for the California Bureau of Prisons to release more than 30,000 “non-violent” prisoners.

People rightly shudder about the potential effects of letting out so many criminals at once. After all, many of these guys have spent years becoming bigger, better and more menacing criminals. Most of them lack the education, skills and social connections to be productive members of society when they get out.

For years, many social advocacy organizations have urged the government to use precious resources to invest in education rather than prisons. The long-run benefits, they argued, greatly outweigh the costs to society. But in the midst of a major drug epidemic, such arguments largely fell on deaf ears. Voters wanted criminals off the street immediately and were willing to rob the schools to pay for prisons. Moreover, in order lock up more people, prison education, counseling and rehabilitation programs were slashed.

Consider if the opposite had occurred. What if, 20 years ago, instead of succumbing to a knee-jerk reaction to crime, we looked at the root causes: idleness, lack of constructive activities for youth, and a dearth of positive role models? What if criminals were subjected to mandatory education and rehabilitation services that gave them the skills and social networks to make a legal living when they got out? Im not arguing that we appease criminal behavior here. But at some point we, as a society, have to make a rational determination that harnessing positive productive capacity makes more sense than paying an exorbitant price to keep able-bodied men, women and children locked away.

At this juncture in our nation, we should seize every opportunity to increase the opportunity for intellectual good in our society.

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