The NHSDLC’s fall 2018 topic “Resolved: in the United States criminal justice system only people convicted of violent crimes should be sentenced to prison” examines the use of prison as a punishment for criminals, and whether it is appropriate for non-violent crimes. The United States has the world’s largest prison population, yet crime rates are at an all-time low. Many politicians and citizens question if putting non-violent criminals in prison is the correct and most cost effective choice.
Before getting into the main issues up for debate, debaters preparing for a tournament will have to understand a few basics about the criminal justice system and the way that it currently works in the United States. They should also understand the difference between violent and non-violent crime. This is an important distinction since in this resolution, non-violent criminals would not be punished with prison.
The criminal justice system is the series of government organizations that handle everything relating to the law, crime, as well as the consequences of crime. This includes law enforcement, who investigate crimes as well as capture criminals, courts that decide whether or not an individual are guilty of a crime, as well as prisons and other institutions that are used to punish criminals. Prisons are one of the main methods used to punish criminals in the United States. Prisons keep criminals in a facility and do not allow them to leave, which takes away their liberty. Prisons are designed to house criminals for long periods of time, usually more than one year.
When someone breaks the law, there are two major categories their crime may belong to. Violent crimes involve physical harm or the threat of harm to the victim. These crimes include but are not limited to; murder, arson, armed robbery, and assault. Non-violent crimes on the other hand involve damage which is mostly economic in nature. Some examples of non-violent crimes are; property damage, fraud, and theft. The resolution proposes that non-violent criminals receive alternative punishments instead of being sent to prison. The sentencing of violent criminals would remain the same.
Many people in the United States who advocate for prison reform think this would be a good idea. Prison serves to separate criminals from the rest of society during their sentences but does not do much else to stop them from committing crimes again. Over 70% of criminals who leave prison commit another crime afterwards. This is called “recidivism”. Since criminals are separated from their families, jobs, and communities, it can be very difficult for them to return to society without turning back to crime. Debaters on the pro side might observe the results of prison as punishment and see that other punishments could provide better rehabilitation and prevent future crime and recidivism. Since the risk posed by non-violent criminals is low and often limited to economic harm, keeping them out of prison could lead to better outcomes for society.
Debaters on con side can start to prepare by considering what effect the severity of punishments might have on crime rates. The severity of a punishment can affect if a criminal decides to commit a crime; this is the basis of the concept of deterrence. While prison might not be appropriate for someone who has committed a very minor crime, debaters on the con side can choose to argue that the most severe non-violent crimes need to be punished severely. Currently one of the most severe punishments is imprisonment.
There are several key ideas that debaters should consider as they prepare their cases for NHSDLC tournaments. First, weigh the long prison terms handed out to non-violent criminals and the huge cost associated with keeping these criminals in prison compared to alternative punishments. This includes the cost of criminals who have not been rehabilitated by going to prison returning to society and committing crimes again. Second, consider whether or not prison is a necessary punishment for some non-violent criminals. Certain criminals have done a lot of harm to society, therefore society must deliver a fair punishment and make sure that a criminal does not have the opportunity to harm society again. Lastly, decide what outcome best fulfills the purpose of the justice system by keeping crime rates low and ensuring that people are safe.
Debaters looking to improve their tournament preparation should look at the resources on the NHSDLC website. When building their cases, some students might benefit from a private debate coach to explain some of the more important questions prior to a debate tournament. More information about private debate coaching can be found here.