The cost of self-righteousness

I've written before about the absurdity of for profit prisons. Now, a recent article by Fareed Zakaria suggests that state governments, strapped for cash, are starting to back off on the number of inmates in their prisons. And Attorney General Eric Holder's recent comments, seeking to cut the length of mandatory drug sentences, suggests that the feds may be rethinking their policies as well.

Some facts from Zakaria's article:
In 2009, for every 100,000 citizens, 760 Americans were in prison. That was five times the rate of incarceration in Britain, eight times the rate in Germany and South Korea, and 12 times the rate in Japan.
In 1970, state prisons had a combined total of 174,000 inmates. By 2009, they had 1.4 million – an eight-fold increase.
These correctional systems cost nearly $80 billion a year, more than the GDP of Croatia or Tunisia.
It's hard not to think that our Christian nation's excessive sense of righteous vengeance has something to do with these figures. We have talked ourselves into pushing the justice/mercy balance far into the justice category. Rabid fans of Les Mis, we have not understood its central message about forgiveness and the capacity of the human heart to change. And as if merciless justice was not enough, we have made sure to punish law-breakers severely, even for minor infractions. But harshness does not translate into changed hearts. Our desire to stick it to cons is costing us hundreds of billions. Talk about biting off your your nose to spite your face.

St. Paul had it that the wages of sin is death. But surely, the wages of self-righteousness is bankruptcy -- both moral and economic. The point of fighting crime is to provide safety and security for the mass of law-abiding citizens. But if fighting crime impoverishes society, and creates a permanent underclass of unredeemable criminals (who often have no route to full citizenship even after serving their time) what have we accomplished -- aside from stoking our sense of moral superiority?

From their point of view of our souls and personal  morality, we have never been able to afford to see the lawbreaker as Other. Now, it turns out that we can't afford it financially either.

There must be a lesson in there somewhere.