Monday, September 26, 2005

A New Jail, A New Kind of Prisoner

Last night I met a woman who works for an Evangelical Protestant Bible ministry to women in jail. She holds a weekly Bible study group for women in the Saint Louis County Justice Center, in Clayton, Missouri.


This is the huge 1,232-bed Saint Louis County Justice Center, completed in 1998. It is far larger than the older jail it replaced, and dominates this part of downtown Clayton.

The woman who teaches Bible study says that most of the women she meets in jail are there for mainly minor charges: unpaid traffic tickets, passing bad checks, petty theft, and selling illegal drugs. Nearly all of these crimes are financially motivated, since these women have recently become poor. I was shocked when she said that the most common reason for this poverty was legal gambling. These women had gambled their paychecks away, had lost their jobs due to excessive times spent in casinos, and had resorted to debt, illegal drug sales, sale of their assets, and stealing to get money to continue gambling. According to a friend who works with homeless women in this jail, there is a strange demographic split of the imprisoned: the men here are primarily minority, the women are primarily white. Men tend to be violent and underprivileged men tend become even more violent, and nearly all of the jail population used to be male. But now we have a perverse new equality: more women are going to jail. A great Feminist victory, no doubt.

Our American system of government gives great freedom to its citizens, but imposes harsh penalties on those who trespass on the law. In particular, the two types of freedom granted are freedom of doing business and freedom of personal behavior. Legal gambling is the flourishing of both kinds of freedom: casinos can operate openly, while gamblers can legally spend their money as they see fit. Our system of government, however, is merciless to those who break the law; our laws are enforced by a huge police force and court system. Our system which has both great freedom and harsh control leads to the strange situation -- people are encouraged to live life on the edge, yet are punished harshly when they almost inevitably step over the edge. This is hardly an ideal system of government: shouldn't people be taught and encouraged to do what is right in the first place? And shouldn't the State do what is right also?

But is gambling a sin? From the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2413: "Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant." Many Protestant denominations, however, consider the addictive quality of gambling, like alcohol, sufficiently dangerous to prohibit their members for partaking in it. Our jail example does shows the great increase in sinful gambling behavior: the inability to meet needs. I've met a number of people who've lost all of their assets in gambling.

A basic Catholic principle for living a just life is to avoid the occasions of sin. It's far easier to do what is right if you avoid the people, places, or things that lead to sin. Most people, even if attracted to excessive gambling, wouldn't go into the bad part of town to enter a gambling establishment of questionable legality. When Las Vegas had just about the only legal gambling in the United States, there were many people who would go there on vacation; but it wasn't a weekly or daily habit for them. Numerous legal casinos increase the occasion and attractiveness of gambling: they are conveniently located, have many amenities, and have safe and well-lit parking lots. Therefore, we should expect a large increase in the number of gamblers and money spent on gambling. Likewise, the easy accessibility of pornography over the Internet and pay-television has led to a huge increase in pornography addiction.

Back when gambling houses were rare and illegal, there were a few corrupt politicians who received favors from gaming operators and looked the other way. This is inevitable, and tolerance of a small amount of illegal gambling is preferable to a harsh totalitarian state. But in these more democratic days, the whole voting population is now bribed. Gaming was reintroduced top-down, with huge tax revenues promised to "help our children". It is typically local governments who propose new casinos, and who dream of huge tax increases.

In 1986 Missouri started a state lottery, promising that its revenues would go to schools. In 1994, so-called "riverboat gambling" started in the state, limited to only games of skill; loss of gambling revenue to Illinois led to a great deregulation of gambling in Missouri. In 1998, the new, larger jail was opened, to house women who committed crimes because of gambling losses.

Gambling was legal twice before in American history. In both cases, the major factor was the state lotteries. The first wave of gambling were lotteries used to support the colonial governments and to pay for the new Puritan universities: Harvard and Yale amongst the other Ivy League schools. This led to widespread professional gambling; the result was great impoverishment and declining economies. This was halted by a Great Awakening of Protestants in the 1830s, a movement that also opposed slavery. The state lotteries reappeared after the Civil War to help pay for Reconstruction, this period also led to organized betting on horse races. Both the lottery and the ponies were eventually proved to be corrupt; moralists realized that poverty was crushing, and that the economy was stagnant due to the productivity losses of gambling. It was outlawed nearly everywhere by 1910. Our current legal gambling era was started once again by the state lotteries, followed by Las Vegas, and then the entire country.

This is what we have: far more people are addicted to gambling. They spend their days and evenings being unproductive. Their wealth is transferred to others, with no net additional goods or services being produced. People are losing their homes, declaring bankruptcy, divorcing, becoming impoverished, and going to jail. This is what we could have: the economy will collapse, and we will become a nation of papers. We will become a nation crushed under by sin and immorality.

Plato's Republic argues that morality is just as important to the State as it is to each individual. But we live in an era where morality is not taught in schools, and morality is declared irrelevant to the Law; this is about the greatest stupidity that I can imagine. Wake up, folks.

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