Ours is a world of easy answers. Type whatever you’re wondering into Google and look no further. The solution to your problem should be on the first page. Clicking onto the second is too much work, so the answer can’t be there. The easiest thing is always the right thing.
For the tough problems, we have statistics to take moral and ethical judgment out of the equation. Things are bad in this world, and the numbers confirm it. Punish harshly and watch the numbers drop, they tell us. In reality, we’re watching the people who make the numbers feign a reduction to encourage us to quit thinking about whether what we’re doing collectively is right or wrong. Regardless, the numbers are what matter.
A blind reliance on numbers is an important characteristic of an easy answer, and in the criminal justice system more than anywhere, we always go for the easy answer. We increase the numbers associated with punishment, and we take the full amount from people who don’t have any leverage. We’re bullies, after all, so the ones who fight back the hardest and have some leverage always do better. We keep stacking on time because the net effect is more time overall. The numbers associated with criminal sentences continue to rise, and most people end up suffering more for what they did than the previous wave of people did.
Following the same easy answer over and over again creates inflation. Just as currency becomes worth less and less with each passing year, so do days and years in criminal sentencing. An extreme DUI used to cost ten days. Now, it costs thirty. Once upon a time, a blood alcohol concentration close to 0.08% cost no days in a cage. Now, it costs one. Plus thousands in fines. And probation. And an interlock. And classes. And a victim impact panel. And a license suspension. The value of time diminishes, and things that once cost very little now cost quite a bit.
As the numbers associated with punishment rise, the numbers that represent bad things supposedly drop. This is because the people who tell us what the numbers are happen to be the same people who advocated harsher penalties in the first place. Their livelihoods depend on those numbers encouraging us to give them just a little more power. Who cares though? Accepting that fact would require us to look for another answer, a harder answer. We want easy answers, remember?
Time is the same to everyone. A rich man can pay a small fine without blinking. Thirty days for him isn’t a second shorter than thirty days for someone who’d be ruined by a small fine. Punishing with time in custody is appealing as a punishment for that reason. Also, it’s pretty much the worst thing we can do to someone without torturing or killing them, and the numbers right now aren’t bad enough to merit that. Yet. Just wait.
So time, which is the same for all of us, loses its value as the years pass. You’d still spend the same time in custody as your dad would’ve if you both had to do a year, but he would’ve served the time for something serious. His year was worth a lot. Your year is more or less worthless. You could end up losing it for the most mundane of offenses. You’ll be begging for the prosecutor to take less of your life away. Years ago, what you did probably wasn’t even illegal.
Imagine how little value the duration of your children’s lives will have. Their entire existence may not be enough to pay for a single minor transgression. What then? Do we have to find other people whose time and lives we must take along with theirs in order to placate our love of large numbers?
For that reason, I keep thinking that this inflation has to stop sooner or later. I wonder if it’ll stop because there’s no one left from whom we can harvest time or if it’ll stop because we finally become brave enough to quit going with the easy answers. What we’re doing now seems unsustainable. How long can we really keep up the rapid devaluation of the most essential, finite commodity each of us has?
But then I think about the hard answers we’ll have to come up with before most people realize how perverse we’ve become and how little we’re all worth to each other.
Maybe it’ll never stop.