THERE IS A REAL debate these days about prisons, justice and what to do with those who break the law.

The calls for criminal justice reform have merit.

There are concerns that the punishments for some crimes, especially low-level drug offenses, can sometimes be so severe that they pale in comparison to the sentences for much more heinous crimes.

There are people who are wrongly convicted, too, and other reasons to keep a close eye on how justice is meted out and if it is done fairly.

And then there is the problem of what a criminal record does to a person’s ability to return to the real world and function. The challenges are real there, too.

The debate about punishment for criminal activity and the rights of victims has long been one that is hard to nail down to a single answer or a single solution.

Bottom line — someone who takes a life, who drives a car drunk and destroys someone else’s life, those people deserve to pay for their crimes, and the innocent victims and the families they leave behind deserve to feel that justice has been served.

But we also have to face a few realities.

The prison system is crowded and the taxpayers have little appetite for increasing the funding that is provided to it.

So, there are issues. So, there are concerns. And so, addressing the problems therein is not high on any politician’s to-do list.

But perhaps this is a discussion worth having sooner rather than later.

If the criminal justice system succeeds in merely warehousing criminals until they can be released to commit more crimes, it is a poor use of our tax dollars.

And if we could figure out a way to make sure that when we give someone a second chance, they truly are given the means to make that possible and that they deserve it.

If we could look hard at drug sentences and low-level crime, as well as other sentencing guidelines, and perhaps come up with more options, more ways to exact justice, we would perhaps have less expense in the prison system because fewer ex-offenders would be back in jail.

But as we talk about criminal justice reform, we have to remember something else, too. There are many stories of men and women who were falsely accused or who were victims, too, who ended up in prison paying a lifetime for a crime they did not commit.

Those cases are mesmerizing and make us think, but they are not really the story of why crime and punishment functions as it does in this country today.

There is stuff we have to deal with — lack of education and opportunity in some of our neighborhoods, poor parenting and bad role models, generational poverty, the list goes on. Fixing those challenges or at least talking more about them, that is how we keep prison populations down and contributing members of society up.

But we have to fix something else.

We cannot afford to have a system that puts true criminals, dangerous predators, back on the streets.

The 8-year-old boy who was stabbed to death in Lawrence County last year died at the hands of a parolee. That system is broken, too.

Crime is the black eye on all our communities, and it clouds our ability to look at justice with an even-handed eye.

We see the victims and what they deal with and we want someone to pay.

And we should speak for them — loudly and clearly.

Crime should not pay — for anyone.

Getting a system that works and making sure that the resources are spent on the worst of the criminal element and keeping them behind bars, that is what our priority should be.

Prison should not be a joy ride, but justice and incarceration should be fair and humane.

We don’t gain anything if it isn’t expect more bills to pay and communities that are no safer.

We do not honor the memory of crime victims if we make no progress in keeping our children safe from harm and predators and criminals of all sorts off the streets.

We want a justice system that accomplishes both, that stops the crime and punishes those who seek to kill, to deal drugs and who exploit and hurt our children and others.

Crime without punishment creates lawlessness.

But justice without foresight and punishment without boundaries doesn’t make us safer.

That balance is what we need to keep front and center.