You'd lose respect for any teacher who vowed never to discipline her charges, on the ground that their misbehavior may have stemmed from problems over which they had no control.
You'd also find it hard to respect a teacher whose sole recourse was to punishment.
And you'd think her irredeemably stupid if she proposed to improve her teaching by asking the superintendent for more paddles and additional corners for her childeren to stand in.
On that basis, you might not want Sen. Robert Dole in charge of your schools. The American society isn't exactly analagous to a classroom, but there are some similarities. We have prisons-- paddles and corners--not just for vengeance but because we hope that the threat of their use might inspire discipline: respect for the law. Crime rates make clear that our discipline isn't what it ought to be. But we aren't likely to cure the problem by providing more corners for offenders to stand in.
Which is what Dole has proposed. His bill calls for spending more than $6 billion in coming years for jail and prison construction.
His objective--to "improve the criminal justice system" by reducing overcrowding--is unarguable. But his bill ignores the reason for the overcrowding in the first place: more and more people are going to jail: more in the first half of 1981 than in all of 1980; 55 percent more in 1980 than in 1975.
Clearly we need something more than paddles and corners. We need, above all, to reduce the production of criminals. And in this regard, the Dole proposal is worse than a waste, a point Maudine R. Cooper, vice president of the National Urban League, made in her recent testimony to Dole's Judiciary Committee.
The Dole bill would, of necessity, reduce the funds available for a variety of programs that might reduce crime, she said, noting that his proposal is "particularly ironic in a year in which Congress has taken money away from our job- training programs, away from our income-maintenance and child-support programs, away from our energy and housing subsidy programs, and away from our education programs."
In other words, while the administration, with full Senate support, is shoving more and more people toward the margin at which crime becomes an attractive alternative, Dole proposes to deal with the increase in crime by building and improving prisons.
Cooper knows, with the rest of America, white and black, that crime is a growing threat to all of us. She is neither interested in mollycoddling criminals nor in merely confining them for a time, after which they return embittered and hardened to cause us more pain.
Her concern is for those who would choose work, if jobs or training opportunities were available. Even in these belt-tightening times, the opportunities could be made available at considerably less than the cost of incarceration.
Dole should be lauded for understanding that even prisoners have a right to decent living conditions, and that overcrowding is likely to create unrest among prisoners and unnecesary bitterness when they are released. But his proposal for improving prisoners won't help much unless we simultaneously move to reduce the need for prisons.
There are several ways to do that. We could move, as some states have done, toward more frequent use of non-prison sentences, including community-based facilities and restitution programs. We could, as Chief Justice Warren E. Burger has proposed, convert some of our prisons into "factories with fences," enabling inmates to learn skills and earn a decent wage. We could help people learn to cope in noncriminal ways with the problems that assail them, and we could do it at less than it costs to warehouse them.
But most of all, we could do what is necessary to make gainful employment a reasonable alternative to crime. The statement of W.E.B. DuBois that Cooper cited in her testimony, is on point:
"The chief problem in any community cursed with crime is not the punishment of criminals but the preventing of the young from being trained to crime."
The best way of accomplishing that is to see to it that they are trained for something else.