Voice for change: Former legislator Simon shares thoughts on crime, punishment at local symposium
By REID MAGNEY of the Tribune staff
Paul Simon once hired a paroled murderer to edit one of his newspapers in southern Illinois.
When he became an Illinois legislator, Simon helped get parole for another convict who two days later robbed a service station and returned to prison.
"I got a Christmas card from him many years later," Simon told a large audience Thursday night at Viterbo University. "He was a deputy sheriff in Tennessee."
His point: People can be reformed.
The former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate came to La Crosse to give the keynote lecture for a symposium on criminal justice issues.
"I am here tonight," he said, "because I believe there are people here who can change things."
Since retiring from the Senate in 1997, Simon has taught at Southern Illinois University. He's the author of 19 books and is working on two more.
Simon said that in 1831 the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville came to America because he heard we had an enlightened prison system. Today, Simon said, people from around the world study our prison system "to know what not to do."
"We have 4 percent of the world's population and 25 percent of the world's prisoners," Simon said. Crime has dropped in recent years, and some say it's because so many criminals are now behind bars. But Simon believes that prison and the death penalty are poor deterrents to crime, saying it has more to do with the economy and people having employment.
"There's a lot of demagoguery among politicians who say lock 'em up and throw away the key," Simon said. Instead of more prisons and longer sentences, Simon advocates a WPA-like jobs program that would give poor people an income and pride in their accomplishments.
Simon also noted that years ago government decided to release most of the 600,000 people in mental hospitals but didn't provide the community services those people needed. Now, he said, "A lot of those people live on the streets. And a lot of them are in prison. Roughly 25 percent of the people in prison are seriously mentally ill, and they receive no treatment."
"If you want to stop crime, put more emphasis on education," Simon said. "Eighty-one percent of the people in jails are high school drop-outs."
Non-violent criminals shouldn't be in prisons, Simon said, calling them "schools for crime."
Someone who has embezzled $1 million should only spend 30 to 60 days in prison, Simon said. "Then you should have them work in a homeless shelter."
Simon believes legislatures have taken too much control from judges.
"Mandatory minimum sentences are great politics, but they don't make sense," Simon said. "Plato said to give judges discretion and pick good judges."
Simon also called for "sensible regulations" on gun control, acknowledging it's "not popular here in Wisconsin" or his home area of southern Illinois. "But I've never seen hunter who needs an AK-47."
Simon also touched on issues of international violence, saying the United States should not invade Iraq because it will put 1 million Americans abroad in danger.
Simon finished his remarks by urging the audience to "change history positively." He said that if 5 percent of churches, synagogues and mosques decided to put their faith into action, or if 5 percent of the audience decided to give of themselves to the community, they could affect positive change in the world.
Reid Magney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (608) 791-8211.
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