As Californians work together to reform a prison system with costs spiraling out of control, it is simply not enough to mouth tired old talking points and bromides. What we need is a very serious- almost philosophical- discussion about the role prisons should play in a society. Part of the confusion and contention over the best solutions may stem from deeper differences in belief that many Californians may not have even considered.
To use a brief illustration: Aristotle wrote that if we want to determine if a thing is good or not, we have to determine its function first, and then we can see if it carries out its function well. Because the purpose of a knife is to cut, he argues, a good knife is a knife that cuts well.
It would seem however, that in many discussions of prison reform, journalists, bloggers, and opinion columnists seem to take for granted one or another view of the prison system's purpose, without stopping to explicitly identify and defend that view. So let us review four competing (though by no means mutually exclusive) theories:
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