Sunday, November 06, 2005

Of Gray Ladies and Gray Bars

Mark Hyman returns to an old stand-by: bashing the New York Times.

This time around, the Gray Lady’s sin is to run
a series of articles that discuss the ramifications of life sentences on the criminal justice system and society as a whole.

Hyman interprets this (predictably) as out-of-touch softheadedness about crime. Moreover, Hyman implies that the use of “appropriate sentences” are the primary cause of the currently low crime rate.

But this interpretation of the series and of the crime problem is, at best, grossly simplified.

As for the series itself, the articles delves into a number of cases of inmates who were sentenced to life sentences with little or no chance of parole, often for crimes they committed when they were under 18 (according to the article 2,200 such inmates are serving life sentences in America’s prisons)

The articles are not editorials, but include interviews with a large number of experts. Many of those who suggest that life sentences are overused are criminologists, lawyers, and prison wardens. Suggesting that only the “out of touch” lefty editorial board of the Times could possibly question the appropriateness of aggressive use of life sentences doesn’t jive with the facts. Anyone who thinks that only someone who is out of touch with the issue of crime would suggest that long term inmates have more opportunities to demonstrate they have been rehabilitated should bear in mind that one of the people who says just that in the NYT series is
Burl Cain, the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

As to the issue, while locking up lots of people certainly reduces crime, it’s hardly the only reason for the drop in crime over the last decade and a half, and it’s not the best solution, either.

If you’ve read the bestselling
Freakanomics, you know that one of the menagerie of social issues taken up by the author, economist Steven Levitt, is the drop in crime. According to him, only 1/3 of the drop in crime since the early 90s can be attributed to putting more people in prison. It’s hardly the simple cause/effect that Hyman implies.

Moreover, even as a partial “solution” to crime, putting lots of people behind bars for a long time is problematic. Obviously, if we had mandatory life sentences for every crime from jaywalking on up, it would reduce crime, both in absolute terms and as far as the rate of crime among the population. But no one would suggest this would be an ethical approach to lowering crime. It would put lots of people in jail who would likely lead productive lives (after all,
some people who’ve been arrested go on to hold fairly prestigious positions in society), On the practical side, it would cost a fortune to warehouse such people in both direct costs and the lost productivity of what these people would do if they were not in prison.

And that’s the issue the Times series raises, albeit on a smaller scale. No, we don’t throw everyone who gets a speeding ticket into the Gray Bar Hotel for the rest of their lives, but (the series points out) we do keep people in jail who have at least a chance to salvage something out of their lives if given the chance (e.g., the girl given a life sentence for participating in a murder when she was fifteen) or who don’t pose any threat to society (the 65-year-old who’s been in prison since 1960). Is it ethical or practical to routinely put people in prison for the rest of their lives without any opportunity, no matter what they do to better themselves, to be released? I don’t know the answer to that question, but to say simply raising it for consideration is proof of not taking crime seriously is itself a claim that shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Obviously, there are some no brainers…cases where the crime is so horrendous that no allowance for possible freedom should be allowed. I, for one, am not anxious to see Charlie Manson frothing up a café latte at my local Starbucks on some work release program. But as the Times points out, less than 2/3 of those serving life sentences are doing so for murder. A full 16% are serving life sentences for drug offenses. As note above, more than two thousand are in prison for crimes they committed when still under 18. Given the vast economic and social costs of incarcerating such huge percentages of the population, it strikes me that finding a way of allowing for the possibility of a person convicted of a crime—even a serious one—to demonstrate the ability to contribute to society in a meaningful way would be a wise move.

Most importantly, it’s important to point out the lack of evidence that incarceration by itself is the solution to the infinitely complex problem of crime. Were it so, the U.S. would be the safest country on earth. According to the
International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. now ranks number one in the world in terms of incarceration rates of its citizens (over 700 inmates per 100,000 citizens). Yep, we passed up those softies in Russia and South Africa (628 and 400 respectively). Most western industrialized nations come in at around 100, give or take. Yet we also have much higher rates of violent crime than most other industrialized nations. For example, we put more than six times the number of our citizens behind bars as they do in Canada, but our murder rate is still four times as high.

There’s plenty of evidence to show that politically expedient policies such as mandatory minimums and stiff penalties for non-violent drug, low-level drug offenses are ineffective. And this evidence comes from a variety of sources. As far back as 1994, even the conservative
Cato Institute featured a contribution from one of its analysts making a strong case that mandatory minimums and lengthy penalties for drug offenses are keeping the prison system from doing what it should be doing: focusing on keeping the most violent and incorrigible prisoners behind bars.

And unless you’re willing to put all criminals in jail for life, it’s equally important that prisons be places where those who have committed crimes of lesser degrees be rehabilitated, not simply warehoused. Simply throwing lengthy prison terms at criminals won’t do the trick. A
Canadian study showed that lengthening prison terms actually contributed to a slight increase in recidivism.

Crime (and punishment) are complex issues that are tempting to address with simplistic solutions because of they carry deep associations with primordial fears about safety and security. But it’s precisely because of this temptation to deal with them out of fear that it’s so important to be willing to look at the issue with a sense of subtlety, creativity, and a willingness to question assumptions when the evidence doesn’t support our instincts, no matter how deeply we might feel them.

Given the importance of clear thinking and subtlety in addressing these issues, I suggest that while we have our national discussion about crime and punishment, perhaps we should send Mark out for coffee until we’re done.

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 2.60


At 12:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Ted,

Thanks for your work.

You might think that ol Markie Boy might be a bit more sympathetic to alternative sentencing when it comes to crime and punishment.

Has Mark forgotten what happened to his boss, CEO David Smith, some years ago?

Let's see what said about CEO Smith...

I quote from

"The first is David Smith, chairman and CEO of Sinclair. After being arrested with a prostitute during a sting in Baltimore, Md., in 1996, Smith, as part of his plea agreement, ordered his newsroom employees to produce a series of reports on a local drug counseling program, which counted toward Smith's court-ordered community service. "I really hated the way he handled our newsroom and what he expected his reporters to do after his arrest," LuAnne Canipe, a reporter who worked on air at Sinclair's flagship station, WBFF in Baltimore, from 1994 to 1998, told Salon."

"It was all very humiliating as a journalist," says Canipe. "The next day we went out in a station vehicle and we stopped at a light. And a truck driver sees the station logo on the side of the car and starts making a sex gesture to us."

-End Salon quotes-

Now THAT'S alternative sentencing!

Ahhh...those Wealthy Elite Republicans really know how to spin restitution.... Get your employees to clean up your mess!

Gee, has Hyman ever commented on the fairness of THAT sentence?

At 3:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ted, you made some very good counterpoints, but I don't think that you are picking up on the real reason Mark and the other Neo-Fascists are in favor of locking up more people for longer periods of time.

It has nothing to do with the safety and security of our citizens and streets, it has to do with corporations making money, they use the slave labor to be more competitive in the marketplace.

Private prison corporations are now traded on the stock market. Hyman and the other elites know that prison is a place for the poor and socio-economically disadvantaged, and every now and then, one of their own who can't pay off the right person, but you won't find them in the Angola prison.

It's much the same way a bad economy causes an increase in military recruitment numbers, for them, this is a good thing. Mark and his ilk could care less about rehabilitation and recidivism rates.

The more time people spend in prison, the more money they make, and the taxpayers pick up the tab for all of it.

Thanks Ted, and keep bustin' Hyman.

Mike B. in SC

At 3:10 AM, Anonymous Jen said...

I heard about this advertising scheme on a another blog, that gives away free Apple ipods. It sounded like a scam, but after I googled it, it was legitmiate. You have to sign up for an offer from one the sponser companies. I did the free credit report one and canceled before the free trial time was up. Here's the link, check it out.


At 5:20 PM, Blogger Heraldblog said...

Most cops and probation agents will tell you that murderers are relatively low-risk parolees.


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