Let Kozlowski Out of Prison!

10/25/2011 05:17 pm ET | Updated Dec 25, 2011

We have become far too punitive as a society, mistakenly believing that prison is the answer for all transgressions of law. Rather than skinning every defendant, eradicating his hope and decimating his life, sanctions should include some mechanism through which offenders can work to redeem themselves.

The longer an individual languishes in prison, the less effective the intended punishment becomes. As the months turn into years, and the years turn into decades, the prisoner becomes alienated from society and retreats into a kind of hibernation, accepting the prison environment as the only world he knows. I'll remain mute on whether prolonged, indefinite incarceration is appropriate for violent offenders, but for nonviolent offenders it doesn't serve any interest other than vengeance.

And who wins when the pursuit is vengeance? From my perspective, vengeance does not work to the benefit of anyone. It is not the Christian way, and yet it is frequently those who proclaim to uphold the Christian faith that call for the pound of flesh. Shakespeare illustrated the errors of vengeance in his timeless play The Merchant of Venice more than 400 years ago, yet we continue to perpetuate them today.

The Wall Street Journal featured an article that profiled Dennis Kozlowski, the imprisoned former chairman of Tyco. I was once a shareholder of Tyco stock and I followed his trial closely. The state of New York picked up his case, as I recall, after Mr. Kozlowski attempted to skirt his responsibility to pay sales tax on a work of art valued in the eight figures that he purchased. That problem proved to be a Pandora's Box for him, exposing him to far more scrutiny and the massive case that led to his 25-year prison term. Mr. Kozlowski has been in prison for eight years now and he has initiated litigation with hopes of compelling the court to grant him the privilege of work release.

I am hopeful that Mr. Kozlowski prevails. That shouldn't surprise anyone. I'm in my 25th consecutive year of imprisonment and I stand strongly opposed to long-term, immutable sentences for nonviolent offenders. To me, it is unconscionable and a gross miscarriage of justice to lock human beings in cages for decades without reconsideration. Justice cannot be measured solely with the turning of calendar pages. An enlightened society such as ours does every citizen a disservice when it inflicts the iron hand more characteristic of Draco.

The time is now to protest the injustice of long-term imprisonment for nonviolent offenders. As a start, society can begin by demanding change, with meaningful programs that provide mechanisms through which nonviolent offenders can work to earn freedom.