Although crime has become a major social problem, we could vanquish it without curtailing the liberties of law-abiding citizens, without mistreating suspects or convicts, and without added cost. The only major obstacle is the inertia of legislators.

Over half of the convicts now in prison are younger than 29 years old. Only six percent are older than 45. These uncontested data lead, or should lead, to the following policy: anyone convicted for the third time of a nontrivial offense, or convicted for the second time of a violent crime, should be kept in prison until he is 45 years of age. Regardless of age, he also should be imprisoned for no fewer than five years (more if the gravity of his crime demands it).

Statistics and common sense tell us that a defendant, when convicted a third time, usually has committed more than three crimes. After all, offenders are unlikely to be caught and convicted each time they violate the law. Most commit many crimes before landing in jail. In any case, a third conviction confirms that the defendant is bent on crime as a career and is not discouraged by convictions and penalizations. A second conviction for an act of unlawful violence indicates at the least that the defendant remains dangerous despite previous punishment. However, according to the statistics, at age 45 most convicts give up criminal activities. They are rehabilitated by their years. It makes good sense, therefore, for those repeatedly convicted to be confined until, at 45, age deactivates them.

We already take age into account when punishing young offenders. But we do so perversely. We minimize the confinement of youthful offenders. If under age 18, they quite often escape punishment altogether. When they become legal adults, young criminals usually are dealt with leniently as first offenders, despite juvenile records (which are officially scaled). Even youthful murderers often are punished lightly. Thus those most likely to commit further felonies are also those most likely to be released early. Crime would certainly diminish and become manageable if we confined young offenders bent on becoming career criminals until, at age 45, they are likely to give up crime.

Won’t imprisonment until age 45 be too harsh for young criminals? Many perhaps did not know what they were doing; shouldn’t we try to reform rather than punish them? Unfortunately, except for age, nothing has rehabilitated criminals in significant numbers. As for not knowing what they were doing, in our system nobody can be convicted unless the court finds, one, that he did what he did intentionally; two, knew that it was wrong; and, three, could have avoided the crime. The offender must have volunteered to risk punishment if he is to be convicted. Convicts therefore cannot complain when what they intentionally risked actually happens. If one knowingly and voluntarily takes a chance, he cannot object if what he decided to risk actually occurs.

Might it be too expensive to keep recidivist criminals in prison until age 45? Actually, it costs society less than the crimes committed when they are released before age 45. Also, politicians have unnecessarily inflated the cost of imprisonment. Do we really need prison gyms? Baseball fields? Cable TV? Most nonconvicts do without. More important, prisoners are not expected to work, apart from household chores and busywork. Unskilled prisoners, even if expected to stay for a long time, seldom have a chance to acquire legitimate and profitable skills. Skilled prisoners seldom are given a chance to use their skills. This is scarcely in the social interest. Factories should become part of all prisons. With sufficient incentive pay, prisoners will volunteer for work. (Those who don’t should not be compelled.) Inmate workers should retain significant earnings after taxes and payments for room and board have been deducted. Except for high-security prisons, correctional institutions should be able to make a profit by selling their products to government agencies at market prices. To be sure, some unions and businessmen oppose prison labor largely because in the past, prisoners were not paid prevailing wages while prison products were sold at below-market prices. Appropriate reorganization can change all this and make prison labor profitable for both inmates and society. We should not pursue schemes that defeat the punitive and protective purpose of confinement, such as work release, furloughs, and conjugal visits. But prison factories are consistent with all the purposes of confinement and helpful alike to prisoners and taxpayers.