Keith Johnson, Deseret News
People line up at the Fourth Street Clinic May 3, 2010 in Salt Lake City, Utah to receive free medical attention. Keith Johnson

In the opening scene of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge is approached by two gentlemen seeking charitable donations to help those "in want of common comforts."

Scrooge replies, "Are there no prisons?"

"'Plenty of prisons,' said the gentleman . . ."

Scrooge, feigning some comfort to learn from the gentlemen that tax-supported prisons and workhouses are indeed still operating, notes, "I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

One of the gentlemen protests, "Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," says Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Scrooge's attitudes embody the very antithesis of Christmas and Christian charity. And yet, when it comes to addressing some of the root causes of impoverishment in contemporary society, many of our policies seem inspired by the same sentiments that motivated the unredeemed Scrooge.

As discussed in an article by Eric Schulzke in today's Deseret News, the United States now has the highest incarceration rate in the world — higher than harsh regimes such as Cuba or Russia. The United States makes up about 5 percent of the world's population, but 25 percent of the world's jailed prisoners are behind bars here.

The primary reason the United States' prison population has increased by 500 percent in the last 30 years is that increasingly harsh penalties have been imposed for non-violent crime.

Imprisoning violent and pathological offenders is good policy. But only a fraction of our prison population is behind bars for those reasons.

Sure and swift punishment for many crimes, however, need not entail imprisonment. For nonviolent offenders, programs of supervised restitution and community service outside prison walls can provide a humane and cost-effective way to account for their wrongdoing.

Of course, a major contributor to our current prison population are those involved in drug-related offenses. Because of the extraordinary risks to individuals and society posed by many mind-altering substances, it is vital that the law restrict access to dangerous narcotics. Nonetheless, it is also irrational to rely on an expensive and sometimes dehumanizing criminal justice system to provide what can be done both more effectively and less expensively through drug treatment and mental health programs.

Substance abuse is a major public health issue in our community. And abuse of prescription drugs, in particular, vexes far too many in our community. As substance abuse ensnares individuals, it robs them of freedom, self-worth and dignity. Those so afflicted often lose career and family.

Sadly, society's response to this impoverishing epidemic seems to be that of Scrooge: "Are there no prisons?" Drug treatment and mental health programs outside of prison cost a fraction of what they require within a criminal justice environment. But for those without any means, there is very little public provision for these kinds of specialized services.

We are heartened to see socially conservative and fiscally prudent lawmakers around the country coming to the realization that disproportionately harsh sentencing for non-violent crime is both imprudent and inhumane. We would much rather see public resources that are currently devoted to unnecessary imprisonment diverted to cost effective treatment programs that help treat, heal and rehabilitate.

But until there is a major shift in public policy on these issues, much of the hard work of care and healing will continue to happen through private instead of public programs.

As this year comes to a close, we would encourage you to identify and support those amazing private charities within your community that provide common comforts and effective treatment to those whose lives have been shattered. It is a small way that we can all begin to make mankind our business.