In my experience, as an attorney, I would have to say that yes, criminals convicted of non-violent crimes should face jail terms. Maybe that is not really surprising given my career, but I can justify it.
I start off with, unfortunately, the example of Paris Hilton. In many cities around the country, there are people who have their licenses suspended. They get one charge and might get a slap on the wrist (no jail time and just a fine) or have your charge amended down to a traffic infraction. What happens though, to the person who continually repeats the behavior with absolute disregard to the system? So in Paris’s case – she was just driving after her license was suspended – she did not hurt anyone. However, her behavior has been a total lack of regard for court order and instructions.
Take for example violation of court issued protection orders. It is by all technically terms a “non-violent” offense. Would you feel comfortable knowing that the person who you have a restraining order against or a sexual assault protection order against was allowed to violate those orders without any penalty of jail time?
Another example that comes to mind is of course the people responsible for the continual inflation of prices of products in stores. Those that shoplift. As a result of their selfishness, there comes a point in time where pay cuts may have to happen, prices may have to increase, or stores may lose profit margins entirely because they have to spend more money on security, etc. People who serve jail time for shoplifting, I truly feel, eventually see the cost benefit analysis in doing x action and spending time incarcerated.
The system as it is set up now, affords a bright line in many cases as to what is considered criminal behavior and what just deserves a slap on the wrist. Speeding 20 MPH over the speed limit but with complete control over the car, may get you traffic citation. (Yes, and an insurance rate hike). Speeding 20 MPH, weaving in and out of traffic drunk, will land you in jail. The difference to some people may be subtle, but the punishment fits the bill in many cases.
At the end of the day, people may think that the “disrespect” of the court system has no merit. However, disrespect of systems is what leads to corruption and other horrible tampering with our rights. I have seen people where just two days in jail gave them a great reality check. I have also seen many many people, motivated to do treatment, take classes, and heed court orders because of the mere threat of jail time.
Now, whether the prison system itself should be reformed, is another debate all together :).