Oh, Dude, Are We Tough on Crime!

The American ego suffers from a lack of self-esteem. That’s why we buy cars like the Hummer, and loud machines to ride around on. It’s why car ads on TV show cars racing on empty roads, their engines screaming. And that’s why we are Tough On Crime. People in many other nations see this national characteristic as tragic.

Tough On Crime doesn’t actually mean tough on crime, anyway. It’s nothing more than macho posturing by politicians trying to prove they have lots of testosterone, seeking votes in the face of non-existent crime waves they invent. The fact is, being Tough On Crime has pretty close to a zero correlation with the actual incidence of crime or its treatment.

Nowhere is this non-correlation more obvious than in the various Three Strikes laws that several states have passed. The ostensible goal of these laws, a noble one, was to take repeat violent offenders out of circulation for a long time. Great! Nobody wants these bastards on the streets. But what we got instead was a whole lot of people whose third strike was petty theft, for whom we now have to pay room, board, and medical for the rest of their lives. This is hardly what we signed up for, and it’s killing the budget. California spends 11% of the budget housing criminals.

The fact is, neither Three Strikes nor any other Tough On Crime measure is shown to have a direct relationship with the incidence of crime. It’s not easy to figure out. Common sense says that crime should go up during hard economic times like the present; instead, it’s gone down. Almost by definition, criminals don’t consider possible punishment when they plot and commit a crime anyway. In some Three Strikes states the crime rate went up after passage, in some it went down. In the meantime, these draconian laws, particularly when applied to a third but nonviolent offense, have imprisoned the largest percentage of the population of any first world nation in recent times. Only autocratic despots in countries ruled by fear have more people behind bars.

The California system is one of the worst, and it’s draining the state coffers. The situation is so bad that the Supreme Court ordered the state to fix it. “The California prison system has the highest recidivism rate, the least effective rehabilitation program and the highest cost for taxpayers of any in the nation. The state violent crime rate, meanwhile, has plummeted since its peak in the early 1990s but has stubbornly remained above the national average.” (Laura Gottesdiener, Huff Post, 27 May 2011)

Let’s make it clear that nobody is saying that violent criminals should simply be turned loose, where they will likely prey on others. But that is not in the same category as mandatory life imprisonment for a young adult whose third crime was stealing something from the drug store.

There are a few things we know about criminals that might help us. One is that most criminals lose their taste for crime after the age of forty. A second is that the worst offenders, the real monsters who can never be let out, universally had a childhood that was horrible in the extreme. A third is that a large percentage of the prison population is mentally ill. A fourth is that many criminals are illiterate. These characteristics suggest some possible improvements in justice.

The fact that criminal activity becomes less likely above the age of forty or so suggests that criminals who reach that age with favorable prison behavior ought to be more favorably considered for parole.

Since horrible childhoods too often create violent criminals, it behooves us to identify children in these situations and to rescue them. Something as simple as a good role model friend may do the job. That means devoting more money to this sort of thing, which is much cheaper than catching a serial killer, trying him, and paying his room and board forever.

Considerable effort should be made to identify and treat mentally ill prisoners in facilities apart from other criminals, if at all possible. Treatment of the mentally ill is generally unsatisfactory. Every city has people on the sidewalk shouting at invisible foes. With appropriate medication and supervision, many of these prisoners, as well as non-prisoners, could lead a normal, crime-free life.

One of the things that helps a prisoner most is stability. They mostly should stay in the same part of the same facility their entire incarceration. Unfortunately, there are too many situations in which prisoners are shuttled from prison to prison, where they are immediately subject to suspicion and various types of harassment, which of course increases the possibility they will react violently.

Poor literacy skills offers big opportunities for transforming prisoners into better citizens. They have plenty of time to learn, and there is no reason that literally all of them could not improve their understanding of the world and their ability to interact in non-criminal ways. It would be better to skimp on recreational facilities, and have ongoing literacy and high school equivalency training.

The fact that recidivism varies from state to state tells us that some rehabilitation programs are better than others. Rehabilitation is difficult and expensive, and not guaranteed to be successful. The only thing more expensive and difficult is not even trying, and that seems to be the trajectory we are on now, for the most part. California is the worst, with 70% recidivism. Nobody wants to spend money trying to help criminals, but it beats spending many times as much housing them for life. That’s where we are now, spending more than one state dollar out of ten on room and board for criminals.

And one more little addendum: We spend $308 million for each prisoner we execute.

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Published in: on 2011/06/13 at 8:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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