My proposal is simple in some ways, yet with potential wide ranging effects:
Fines Instead of Prison.
All non-violent crimes would move under this category. For most crimes, you simply multiply the estimated financial cost to any victims by a given, large, amount (I prefer by x10 for simplicity), and split that fine, 1/2 to the victim(s) , the other half to the government. Plus an additional fine for the cost of the case. An example:
A criminal robs a convenience store, takes two wallets and a bunch of cash, a window gets broken in the process. He gets caught, charged, tried, found guilty, and sentenced. In addition to the cash and the wallets being returned to the owners, the robber now owes each man 5x the total value of everything in their wallets (cash, gift cards, etc), and the store 5x the amount of cash stolen, plus 5x the cost of replacing the window. If the store's window is covered by insurance, then that amount is owed to the insurance company instead. He also owes the government the total of all that, plus the cost of being tried in court.
Now, the next question that comes to mind, is what if the criminal can not pay? If the criminal has a job, then his wages are garnished and the monies distributed automatically. If the criminal is unemployed, then he is assigned to either an available basic government job that fits his skills, or to a supervised manual labor job, doing jobs such as trash pick up or other duties that need to be done, at the higher of state or federal minimum wage, and his wages are garnished until everything he owes is paid off. He may only quit this job if he finds another job.
And now I'm going to here complaints that this looks like slavery. No, prison is like slavery: You live in a confined cell, get up when you are told, go to bed when you are told, eat when you are told and what is served to you. My proposal is like a grown up version of a punishment parents inflict: "You broke the neighbor's window! You are going to get an after school job and work until you can pay them back!"
That's the easy part. What about crimes that have no direct financial cost? for example, in a robbery (as opposed to a burglary) there is a threat of force involved. That's a crime in and of itself. Well, we currently have prison sentences for these crimes, we replace prison with fines of appropriate amounts.
A threat with a fist might be a fine of $100, while a threat with knife or other weapon might be $1,000, and a threat with a gun would be $10,000. Note, that this is per person. So in the scenario I used before, if the robber was using a gun, the criminal would also owe $20,000 minimum more (if one 0f the wallents belonged to the cashier, and the only customer was the other person whose wallet was stolen.) That's an addition $5000 that each victim would receive, the other half of that $10,000 fine going to the government.
Non-lethal bodily harm would probably start at $1,000, and increment from there. Rape and murder would have to include prison time combined with incredible fines, with release to only come IF the person is ever deemed to no longer be considered a danger to society.
If fined for causing another person's death (including man slaughter, etc, but not for self defense), half the fine would go to the government as usual, the other half would be split amongst all immediate family members (excluding the convict of course, should the situation arise).
Some advantageous side effects would be insurance companies might lower their rates for certain shops and persons, if they know they can recoup and profit off of any costs incurred by criminal activity, prison population would drop dramatically (thus reducing costs), the legal system in general would become a lot less costly, a lot more labor intensive public jobs would get done at minimal cost, and hopefully a lot more.
It is true that the rich would be able to afford to perform crimes a lot more easily, but at the same time, depending on the crime, they may waste a whole lot less of the court's time. "I pleased guilty, and I have my cheque book ready to go. Whom do I make these out to, and for how much each?" Not fair, but their ability to spend massive amounts of money on lawyers to keep themselves out of jail on technicalities isn't fair either. The unfairness in my proposal costs the taxpayers less than the current unfairness, so I consider it the better option.
I am sure there are other objections, and I am even more certain my concept can be refined. But this has the potential to do us a lot of good, and reduce cost instead of increasing it.
Effect on government control on our lives: Neutral, maybe slight reduction. It does not increase government intrusion, but at best, in reduces jail time to "pay your fine and be on your way." Which has the benifit of letting some one who made a mistake but is otherwise in a decent position in life to continue on. Garnished wages are certainly no more, and most likely a lot less, intrusive than time spent in prison.