Hey, Bern, Here's an Idea: Socialize Prison - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Hey, Bern, Here's an Idea: Socialize Prison

Hey, Bern, Here's an Idea: Socialize Prison

By Meghan Walsh


Because the socialists are coming for you. 

By Meghan Walsh

It’s the stuff of urban legend — except that this one’s actually true. Finnish police very nicely pull over a Nokia phone-maker exec for speeding on his Harley. His ticket … more than $100,000 (we’re talking USD here). Why all the zeros? In Finland, as in other Nordic and European countries, traffic and criminal fines are based upon income.

As they should be!

Since some Americans are already warming to the idea of a “socialist democrat” for president, we don’t think it’s too preposterous to propose socializing the prison system — just a tad. After all, it’s not like we’re calling on law-abiding taxpayers to cover the cost of punishment (though they already subsidize it). We simply want rich wrongdoers to foot the bill. It’s easy: Equal punishment for equal crimes. Jail fees and financial penalties would be based on a sliding scale, depending on your wealth bracket, and everyone would have access to the same facilities. Bern, this one’s for you, my brother.

Maybe another anecdote will bolster our case. A Wall Street banker and a janitor walk into a bar. Mistakes are made, and bottles are broken over heads. The banker goes to a swanky, pay-to-stay Orange County jail, complete with his own personal DVD player and mini-fridge, for which he pays $100 a day. For him, that’s pennies. The janitor can’t afford upgraded digs, so he goes to LA County’s musty, much more perilous lockup, where he still has to shell out $20 a day. Without the means to pay, those fees stack up. He gets behind on his payments. Eventually, in a Dickensian twist, the courts put him back behind bars. 

What’s that saying we have? The punishment should fit the crime. Well, in this case, both men committed the same crime, but the punishments were far from equal. Indeed, it seems the greater crime here is being poor. “You can’t just measure dollar for dollar” when it comes to penalties, says UCLA criminal law assistant professor Beth Colgan. “It’s the real effect of the fine on the individual.” Somehow we seem to have overlooked the Eighth Amendment clause that outlaws excessive fines, where excessive is based on proportionality. 

There are those who argue making inmates pay teaches them a lesson. “We’re not the Hilton,” one Nevada sheriff told reporters earlier this year, after unveiling his plans to charge inmates $6 a day for food and $10 for each doctor’s visit. And someone has to pay to keep the booming prison industry afloat. After all, correctional costs are more than $80 billion annually — or about the equivalent of the federal Department of Education’s budget (11 states actually spend more on corrections than higher education).

Others say pay-to-stay detention centers help address overcrowding. A sergeant from one such facility in southern California recently put it this way: “We cater to good people who make bad choices.” In that case, we’ll even let you keep your country club jails. Just one stipulation: Adopt the Toms model. For every fancy cell one guy buys, we give one to the less fortunate.

One jumpsuit for all! (Cue fist plunging into the sky.)

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