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Page last updated at 16:31 GMT, Wednesday, 1 April 2009 17:31 UK

Let all the criminals go free

60 seconds to change the world

Prison inmate

Can a simple idea help make the world a better place? Each week we ask a guest to outline an idea to improve all our lives. Here, classicist Mary Beard suggests all non-violent criminals should be released.

My idea is a truly liberating one. It is to shut down our prisons and let all the inmates free, except for those who present a real and physical danger to other human beings.

I'm sure that that when future generations come to study the history of the 21st Century, they will be completely baffled by our obsession with locking people away.

Why on earth, when it costs more than a five-star hotel per night, per inmate, and when its only obvious effect was to turn run-of-the-mill wrong-doers into hardened criminals, why on earth did we persists in putting shoplifters, fraudsters and flashers behind bars?


Why was our only response to more crime longer and longer sentences? One day this will seem as cruel, bizarre and counter-productive as deportation for sheep stealing.

Why can't we devise some more appropriate and useful punishment?

I don't want to see errant bankers get off scot-free. I want to see them working their socks off to pay back what they have stolen. Couldn't we get them building a few schools, hospitals, railways?

Below is a selection of your comments.

At last someone talking sense about criminal justice. Make those who have harmed society/the economy/other individuals make restitution for the harm they have caused, rather than have them cost society/the economy/the taxpayer even more money by giving them free board and lodging. Of course, rapists and murderers cannot pay back the damage and should thus continue to be locked up, as the author rightly argues.
Hugh, Brussels, Belgium

I understand Ms Beard's point but it is clear she has never watched Crimewatch. Nearly all featured rapists begin as flashers. Likewise, shoplifters who are not reprimanded in some way continue their destructive behaviour. And as for financial fraudsters? I can't imagine the general public being thrilled at them being released without charge given the current economic climate.
Cat, Bristol, UK

The idea of prison is that it should be a punishment. It it fails to do that, the prison regime is too soft. I say ban television and cigarettes, and make prison about exercise and hard work. Sentences can then be shorter, and it won't be seen as a five-star easy life.
Jonathan, Didcot, UK

Jails are not the answers. By incarcerating people we alienate them and make them harsher criminals. People who broke the law should serve out their "punishment" as a community service. If we jail people, we take money and resources out of society and create separations. If the "payback to society" is done via community service, it will unite the people, give them purpose and build up the society.
Eli, California, US

So this "liberating" idea is to replace prison with... forced labour? Is slavery really less cruel, bizarre and counter-productive than incarceration? (There's also the practical question of what you do with people who just don't bother to turn up for their assigned work group, of course).
Steven, Cambridge

On the surface it seems like a good idea. And a Christian one at that. But what about someone like Bernie Madoff? I don't think he could possibly build enough schools to make up for what he did to so many people. Pragmatically, his going free would probably drive someone to come after him. If it drives someone else to violence, would that be right? I agree that we lock way too many people away, but it's not that simple either.
Sue, Rochester, NH, US

Imagine how much grief, social decline, violence and the like can be avoided if the lawmakers could be convinced of the validity of this idea. Of course the forces that be will probably continue their antiquated ideas of taking a person's life and ruining it. Just imagine what talent and potential sit behind bars; creative and intelligent people sometimes go that way because their energy was never guided into a useful direction. If those people could get the chance of earning their freedom by doing something that can be useful to common mankind, well, perhaps one could then start speaking of improving the world.
Erika le Roux, Germany

Whatever happened to the chain gangs in America? Seriously though, let these people do something useful for the community as a whole. It will still cost a lot of money, but there would be something to show for it.
Mark Holmwood, Barneveld

I don't see these errant bankers hanging around to build schools, hospitals and railways when they have the means to easily escape abroad. So they would have to be held somewhere, eg: imprisoned. There is also the question of whether we would rather be in a building built by bankers or one built by one of the many unemployed builders.
Anne, Chester

Prison, for all its faults, is at least a predictable punishment. "Appropriate and useful" all too easily leads to "cruel and unusual". That said, I agree with the columnist, there is surely a better solution to nonviolent crime than locking up the perpetrators.
Dan, London

This is confused and ill thought out. Mary Beard seems to dismiss the damage and wrecking of lives that can be done by non-violent criminals. Then she confuses recklessness (as in the bankers) with illegality, to be punished by depriving others such as building workers of their fair trade by employing wrong doers in their place. Indeed Mary falls into the trap, with her comment about bankers, that drives much of our response to crime, irrational disgust.
Barryb, Beckenham

I agree that prison does not work, nor is it punishment, as well as being expensive. We should bring back corporal and capital punishment. These would be cheap and effective.
Steve Edwards, Edinburgh

It's easy to say that criminals should be made to join the army or made to build schools but this completely ignores the fact that these are jobs generally done by skilled, well-motivated people. Frankly, I'd rather not have schools, hospitals or railways built by people with no training, no skill and no motivation to do a quality job. Manual labour may be the answer, but the introduction of heavy machinery has meant that the amount of genuinely unskilled manual labour available is decreasing, and the supervision required to ensure that people actually turned up for work, and then did the job, would cost as much if not more than keeping them inside.
Jake, London, UK

Most local jurisdictions in the United States which adjudicate criminal offences have programmes by which minor offenders may be allowed by the court to perform work for city or county agencies under the supervision of the police or sheriff's department, often on weekends, as an alternative to confinement in jail. Why not do this in the UK as well?
Caroline, Berkshire, England

I do not agree with open prisons. Unbeknown to me, learning how to scuba dive, my instructor was from open prison. He became attached to me, sending extravagant gifts and constantly called and e-mailed me even when I told him to leave me alone. I assumed something would be done, but then my mother called me up panicked, because he had been sitting outside her home from 7am, and had followed her and my 7-year old brother all day. And the prison did nothing. He was there again the next day, and my parents banned me from returning to their home. The police said because he had not done anything, they could not arrest him. Only when I got a very angry e-mail saying he was now going to have to come and get me did the police assign a PC to work on my case. I stopped attending university, and did not visit my family for three months - and they were frightened to visit me in case he followed them. Only after five months was he arrested, and moved to a secure prison with a harassment order against him. This stress was too much for me, and I ended up in the hospital, and having to fail my year at university. So I do NOT agree with free roaming prisoners, but I do believe they should be working to better our community, under STRICT supervision.
Sarita, The South

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