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Crime and punishment in America has a colour
July 20, 2007 2:55 AM   Subscribe

Despite a sharp national decline in crime, American criminal justice has become crueler and less caring than it has been at any other time in our modern history. Why? Former conservative economist Glenn C. Loury on incarceration in America. [via]
posted by Sonny Jim (64 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Excellent article, thank you.
posted by flamk at 3:30 AM on July 20, 2007


Because we are, by and large, a cruel and uncaring populace that has an average emotional level, as Bill Hicks estimated, of about 12. We're very interested in buying new things, and our political discourse reveals that empathy is a weakness rather than a strength.

So yeah, this isn't happening in a vacuum. We live in a fairly cruel and uncaring culture, and criminal justice being cruel and uncaring is just an extension of that.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:34 AM on July 20, 2007


Great find.
posted by talitha_kumi at 3:39 AM on July 20, 2007


I suppose the next question though is: what can we do about it?
posted by talitha_kumi at 3:39 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Despite a sharp national decline in crime?

Some people think that the sharp national decline in crime is the result of the more harsh criminal justice system.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:46 AM on July 20, 2007


Some people also believe in fairies and magical wizards.
posted by psmealey at 3:52 AM on July 20, 2007 [4 favorites]


hmm....let me see...crime is declining, but still worst in the western world....you have no universal health care, like the rest of the western world...you have no social safety net...highest number of homeless in the western world...you ignore WTC rulings...bow out of the International War Crimes court...veto or ignore whatever doesn't decisions by the U.N. that don't suit you....say fuck off to Kyoto, despite being the largest cosumer of carbon...point 8000 nuclear warheads at the rest of the world...could it be...THE KIND OF PEOPLE YOU ARE?????????
posted by lastobelus at 4:01 AM on July 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


Some people have read the article.
posted by atrazine at 4:20 AM on July 20, 2007


the United States—with five percent of the world’s population—houses 25 percent of the world’s inmates.
Why is this bad? That other nations see fit to let their criminals roam the streets is no determiner that the USA should do likewise.
Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens.
Part of being a citizen of a free country is the requirement to abide by the law; failure to do so results in the sanction determined by that country. That's what keeps the country free for the law-abiding.
Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.
Is this because criminals are also disproportionately drawn from those demographics? If 2 out of 10 citizens are poor (or black, or red-haired or whatever) and 6 out of 10 law-breakers are, should 4 be excused punishment to maintain proportionality?
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 4:30 AM on July 20, 2007


That other nations see fit to let their criminals roam the streets is no determiner that the USA should do likewise.

I love the way that the only alternative to locking up so many people is to let "criminals roam the streets" presumably maurading gangs of gun-toting psychopaths.
posted by criticalbill at 4:46 AM on July 20, 2007


Some people still support Bush/Cheney, too. Conservatism is the religion of the small-minded.
posted by DU at 4:47 AM on July 20, 2007


I love the way that the only alternative to locking up so many people is to let "criminals roam the streets"
Well, if they're not locked up, where are they? Sitting obediently at home, not being naughty any more?
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 4:52 AM on July 20, 2007


No Mutant Enemy: blah, blah, blah...


Yup. Definitely a result of the kind of people you are.
posted by lastobelus at 4:55 AM on July 20, 2007


The failed drug policies of the US government have criminalized an entire social class and created a huge criminal power funded by "narcodollars". Much better to legalize everything, tax it, and use that money to educate against it. Works for cigarettes, why not for drugs?
posted by conifer at 4:57 AM on July 20, 2007


I missed a biggie in my rant: during your last big national disaster several western nations had aid ships & planes, loaded with supplies and aid workers, waiting in harbours and on runways ready to go help but denied permission by your government, for several days before you yourselves managed to deliver aid to your people.

Oh but of course it is purely a demographic coincidence that all those people awaiting aid, were disproportionately black/brown -- just like the demographic coincidence of your imprisonment policies.
posted by lastobelus at 5:02 AM on July 20, 2007


Thank you, lastobelus, for that very reasoned criminological treatise.

This was a really interesting read. I know less about the US side of things but it rang true with the experience in the UK, where we're seeing something similar to the effects outlined in this article. The prison population here has risen significantly since the downturn in crime in the mid-1990s (which was mirrored in the UK as in the states). It was around 60,000 in 1995, and is now inching past 80,000. Crime levels have dropped since then (42% decline, according the latest British Crime Survey stats published yesterday). And detection levels by the police haven't gone up significantly in that period - the police service's sanction detection rate was around 17% in the mid-1990s and is around the low 20%s now. So what's doing it? My own view is that it's higher sentences, partly, but mostly the inappropriate use of custodial sentences for offenders who would stand far more chance of rehabilitation through a non-custodial sentence. And why have we got to this position? Probably through politicians playing to the gallery. Upping the sentence on lowish-level crime - or having non-court disposals far too late in an offender's career that they instantly breach and end up back in court with (thank you, ASBOs) - seems cheap in the long-term and plays well to the tabloids and middle England, so they do it - and then the Treasury won't cough up for extra prison places 5, 10 years down the line. So we're stuck with prisoners having to make use of police station or court cells that were designed for one or two night stays rather than serving part of a sentence - and which have none of the facilities. Loury's analysis certainly strikes a chord for me when applied here.

What makes me want to curse is that we know what to do to solve this. We know what the pathways into offending are, and we know what the pathways into reoffending are. There was a very good report (PDF) published in the late 1990s by Blair's Social Exclusion Unit which looked at why so often prisoners ping-pong from release to offence to sentence and back again. Very few of its recommendations have been implemented. Yet in the long-term, they would be far cheaper and have far less social cost than carrying such high levels of prison population. If Brown is serious about making his mark as a new PM, distinct from Blair, he could abandon the latter's rhetoric on crime, dust off that report, and actually implement it.
posted by greycap at 5:02 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Your whole fucking country has turned into a sadistic torture chamber at every goddamn level, inside outside, from Fear Factor to Abu Graib, from your corrupt simpering rimjob Attorney General to your satanic Vice President, from your Hollywood Entertainment News to your Gangster Rap criminal heros. It's turtles all the way down, dipshits. Off to Gitmo with you hahafunneyjoke.

Criminal 'justice'? Duh. That's about the most fucking obvious way that ordinary goddamn people are getting spreadeagled and fucked by the majestic mitre of political power, and christ's balls, it's pervasive and systemic. What is not obvious and predictable and horrible and known about all this? Who hasn't heard the blithe horrifying pound-me-in-the-ass prison joke before?

If you're American, you're getting fucked by the powers that be, fucked dry and put up sore. The only question is about how willing you are to keep quiet about your daily ethical rape, just to keep things on that even keel and protect the family from shame and censure.

How long, huh? How long you all gonna let it go on, while you line up for your fucking iPhones and your Paris Hilton news updates? I pray for the collapse.

OK, I'm spent. It's been a while.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:08 AM on July 20, 2007 [10 favorites]


Well, if they're not locked up, where are they? Sitting obediently at home, not being naughty any more?

How about not being naughty in the first place?
posted by DU at 5:13 AM on July 20, 2007


That other nations see fit to let their criminals roam the streets is no determiner that the USA should do likewise.

This explains why European countries are such low tourism areas. The high crime rate.
posted by DU at 5:21 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


...the collapse or the next revolution.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:33 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Some people think that the sharp national decline in crime is the result of the more harsh criminal justice system.

I love this attitude.

Crime too high? Harsher punishment. Crime is lower? Harsher punishment must be working. Crime skyrockets again? Needs harsher punishment.

Its a completely reality-proof way of thinking. The answer to everything is more prisons and harsher punishment. As such, it actually fits a larger pattern of neo-conservative political thought: "Our policy seems to be working. We obviously must be right." ...three years later... "Our policy seems to be failing. We should keep doing it because we're obviously right."
posted by Avenger at 5:34 AM on July 20, 2007 [4 favorites]


The failed drug policies of the US government have criminalized an entire social class and created a huge criminal power funded by "narcodollars". Much better to legalize everything, tax it, and use that money to educate against it. Works for cigarettes, why not for drugs?

I'm not sure I would call drug users/merchants a uniform social class, but aside from that, I'm wondering, has any government done this anywhere anytime lately? Officially, I mean. (Holland sort of doesn't count, I'm thinking hard drugs, which they do not wink at.)

Pre WWI it was pretty much personal responsibility that governed drug use, and apparently, correct me if I'm wrong, addicts could live for years in genteel moroseness (think Eugene O'Neil's mom). Given the nature of modern drugs, I wonder if that would even be possible anymore.
Thoughts?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:35 AM on July 20, 2007


Pope Guilty writes 'Because we are, by and large, a cruel and uncaring populace that has an average emotional level, as Bill Hicks estimated, of about 12. We're very interested in buying new things, and our political discourse reveals that empathy is a weakness rather than a strength.'

What Pope Guilty said:

Seems to me that this isn't some recent shift in the American psyche. Rather, there was a very short window between the start of the 1970's and the end of the 1980's when America began to experiment with concepts like rehabilitation, prison reform, freezing the death penalty, etc. However, it wasn't long before that experiment was given up as a bad job and you returned to the chain gang.

I think that the most interesting aspect of the article is its examination of the role that race plays in the US psyche. Fear of the black man, his lawlessness and his rampant and unconstrained sexuality has been a dominant characteristic of the American political psyche since the end of slavery. It's always seemed to me that it is precisely this that drives the Global War on Drugs -- not because the US government gives a shit about the health and welfare of drug users or people with addiction problems -- on the contrary, it regards such people as the scum of the earth -- but rather because the state needs a pretext that will enable it to mount surveillance on minority communities and lock up young black men in enormous numbers, so that we don't have to worry about them creating disorder on our streets and frightening/seducing our women.

greycap writes 'There was a very good report (PDF) published in the late 1990s by Blair's Social Exclusion Unit which looked at why so often prisoners ping-pong from release to offence to sentence and back again. Very few of its recommendations have been implemented.'

I think you're being unduly hard on Blair in this respect. Over the last five or six years, New Labour have spent phenomenal amounts of money on drug treatment, both in the wider community and for those involved in the criminal justice system. It did so on the understanding that drug dependence was one of the major drivers of acquisitive crime in the UK, and so has mounted a genuinely enormous response, with our national drug treatment spend increasing by something in the region of 300% over the last five years.

Unfortunately, I think that the spend was predicated on a simplistic causal relationship between drug misuse and crime, that went something like drug dependence --> acquisitive crime. In reality, the picture is much more complex as pretty well all members of the criminal classes use illicit drugs, but their use isn't necessarily problematic. For many, drugs are simply another luxury good that they spend their ill-gotten gains on, therefore treatment is of no more interest than cancer treatment would be to someone who doesn't have cancer. But for those people who are seeking drug treatment in the criminal justice system, we have pretty much wraparound services that run from arrest to release.

Of course, the thing that's most problematic for these people is the housing issue: often, they come out of prison, go into residential rehab -- at great cost to the state -- and then are discharged to grotty bed and breakfasts/hostels that are functionally indistinguishable from crack houses. But the crisis in housing is something that's affecting people right across the board, and isn't limited to prisoners.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:37 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


(Just because you asked, I'd like to note my own personal tally of articles written by Americans on the subject of eminent black men not including the adjective "eloquent" remains steadfastly at zero.)
posted by ~ at 5:39 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Another example:

http://www.digg.com/world_news/Teen_Girls_Accused_Of_Setting_Kitten_Ablaze

this thread is filled with people proclaiming the two girls should be burned at the stake, should have their genitals doused in gasoline and set on fire, etc.

Every such comment is massively dugg up.

Every comment pointing out that this would be hypocritical, unduly harsh, or just outright inappropriate in a civilized society is dugg down.

These are the kind of people that make up America. The kind of people who not only are unable to understand why it would be wrong to torture to death two girls for burning a kitten, but who look down on and despise the people who do have compassion and tolerance and a desire to rehabilitate and re-integrate those who have transgressed against society. The kind of people who are perfectly happy to slaughter a million animals a day to be the fattest people in the world and who will happily drive your SUVs back and forth consuming the world's resources without a care for how many entire species of not-so-cute animals go extinct --- but the two girls who set a kitten on fire? they should definitely be tortured to death -- it's the only way justice can be served.

The ironic thing is that a huge majority of these people call themselves "Christian". More than in most other nations in the world. Yet a fundamentally important part of Christ's message, assuming he existed & said what the gospels say he said, was compassion and tolerance. It is shameful. Utterly shameful. You lock up a far far higher percentage of your black people than South Africa ever did. Utterly, utterly shameful.
posted by lastobelus at 5:41 AM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


Your whole fucking country has turned into a sadistic torture chamber at every goddamn level

No, no, that's Hostel 3. I don't think that's due to release for another year or so.
posted by psmealey at 5:56 AM on July 20, 2007


Aye.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:59 AM on July 20, 2007


Criminals don't love Jesus.
posted by emf at 6:05 AM on July 20, 2007


All those numbers are hurting my head.
posted by sluglicker at 6:08 AM on July 20, 2007


Well, if they're not locked up, where are they?

SMOKING THE DEMON WEED AND STEALING YOUR WOMEN
posted by prostyle at 6:16 AM on July 20, 2007


Definitely a result of the kind of people you are.

I didn't say it was a result. A crime committed by a poor / black / red-haired person is still a crime. If justice really is blind, the demographic of the criminal is irrelevant.

How about not being naughty in the first place?

So you're not saying that law-breakers shouldn't be locked up, you're saying that they're not really law-breakers? Have I misunderstood?
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 6:22 AM on July 20, 2007


The kind of people who not only are unable to understand why it would be wrong to torture to death two girls for burning a kitten

Well, not to be hypocritical about this: it would certainly give me, and many like me, a great deal of sadistic pleasure to burn those girls to death. Apparently it gave the girls sadistic pleasure to burn the kitten. There is a distinction, one of innocence and guilt, but it is in both cases morally wrong to take one's pleasure at the expense of another's pain. And thus, the distinction between recognizing a desire to something immoral and actually doing it is important.

Lastobelus, if you're asking for all punishment to be given out with a heavy and regretful heart, I think you're in for disappointment. In practice I think it's actually impossible to accept that a punishment must be meted out to a wrongdoer and not, to some slight extent, enjoy that punishment. Even a parent spanking a beloved child has some element of vengeance to it, some sense that the irritation of the child's behavior is being salved.

However, I think the escape clause is here: recognize that yes, you are going to enjoy punishing the wrongdoer, but giving out any punishment above what is warranted, would become your own wrongdoing. What is warranted for those girls? A well-supervised programme of rehabilitation designed to instil empathy for animals. That will, in the end, punish the girls more than anything else short of actual torture.

Confinement to small geographical spaces, forced company of other criminals, infliction of pain and taking away property are primitive approaches to preventing crime. If we believe we have a right to do these things, surely we also must have a right to change the minds of wrongdoers. I just can't accept that locking someone in prison until they maybe, due to a primitive instinctual fear of being caught and imprisoned again, is somehow an OK way to make them stop doing something, but forcing them, with psychiatric drugs, hypnotism, ethical education, etc--whatever we know works to change a person's way of behaving--is somehow not OK. Trying to claim a right to integrity of mind when you put people in prison is hypocrital lip service.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 6:22 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


No Mutant Enemy: Why is this bad? That other nations see fit to let their criminals roam the streets is no determiner that the USA should do likewise.


Right. The determiner is that their strategy seems to work better. The reason we might think about copying the Canadians or the Japanese is that the citizens of Montreal or Osaka are noticeably safer walking the streets at night than the citizens of Detroit.

I'm sick to death of people calling for ever harsher laws as if that's going to magically fix something. If 3 strikes laws don't reduce crime to to zero, we call for 2 strike laws. If someone commits a crime after serving a 10 year sentence in prison, we need mandatory 20 year sentences. Any position short of "instant execution of anyone accused of a crime as soon as they are arrested" is painted as soft on crime. Hell, if a politician says that violent rape inside of prisons is a disgrace the s/he's is soft on crime, and a godless crime-loving liberal besides, because we think the prison time isn't enough. We want them to get raped and die of AIDS. It's the only place where the right wing loves homosexual sex.

Part of being a citizen of a free country

Yeah, I remember being a citizen of a free country.

But then we have lastobelus with "this thread is filled with people proclaiming the two girls should be burned at the stake, should have their genitals doused in gasoline and set on fire, etc."

I'm sure you already know this but the calls for burning the kitten torturers are simply a reaction of disgust by people sitting in front of computer screens. Sure, it's childish, but its harmlessly blowing off steam. It's not like these people actually want to burn two human beings alive. But what would you suggest? A stern talking-to and an offer of sensitivity training?

And so far as "Christian" goes, for many people it's a deep-felt following of what Christ taught. For many others, American "Christianity" is a nothing but a tribal tag. Many who call themselves "Christians" can't be bothered to know what Christ might have done, or often wouldn't like it much if they did know. "Christian," to these people is shorthand for "I hate queers and want girls to keep in their place." It's a barbaric attitude. But that doesn't mean that all Christians or all Americans or all American Christians are barbarians.
posted by tyllwin at 6:30 AM on July 20, 2007


I would think that most of the criminals anywhere are "drawn from the disadvantaged classes." I mean, Richie Rich doesn't need to rob a convenience store to feed his meth habit. He can just get a prescription from his doctor. And he can afford the best lawyers should he get caught for something.

In the US, the poor often happen to be black and brown. Certainly that is no accident, but a confluence of historical events, including slavery and racism. But I am certain that in other countries, no matter the inmates' races or colors, they're virtually all from poorer classes.

Although I disagree with lastobelus' anti-American sentiment, I do agree that this problem is endemic and entrenched in our society, and there is no quick fix. The entire culture needs to change - both the culture of the ones doing the imprisoning, and the ones getting imprisoned. As a white middle-class person, I'm more likely to be a member of the former. I don't know how to effectively change the culture of the latter.
posted by desjardins at 6:33 AM on July 20, 2007


Of course, the thing that's most problematic for these people is the housing issue: often, they come out of prison, go into residential rehab -- at great cost to the state -- and then are discharged to grotty bed and breakfasts/hostels that are functionally indistinguishable from crack houses.

In Philly, most prisoners at CFCF (the state penn) are discharged directly to Ridge, the city's largest homeless shelter and the central intake point for the shelter system. Prison staff literally give the guys a bus token and tell them, "go to Ridge." Ridge is functionally indistinguishable from a crack house, and a 19th century style mental institution at the same time. There is little to no attempt to link ex-offenders with housing at Ridge, and ex-offenders are barred from applying to most subsidy programs. Finding housing in the private market is difficult because many landlords do criminal screens. There are tremendous barriers in place for the ex-offender who wants to reintegrate.

I have more than one client who has suffered homelessness and/or joblessness because of the stigma their record carries, despite a documented evidence of their many attempts to mainstream.

My clients talk about how the system is set up to try and make them re-offend; in some ways I think they are absolutely correct.
posted by The Straightener at 6:35 AM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wait a minute. Yesterday in the NFL Dogfighting thread the string-'em-up brigade was out in force, now we're all sweetness and light and compassion and rehabilitation. Call me when we get it straightened out.

lastobelus: obviously a civilized society shouldn't do duch things, but I think we've all said similar things in moments of disgust at some horrible act. A few days ago here in New York a young police officer died of wounds inflicted when he was shot in the face by three parolees in a stolen car. When the story was in the news I grumbled the occasional 'just shoot the bastards,' not because I think that's what we should actually do, it's just a visceral expression of rage and disgust. Obviously, we shouldn't let these emotions dictate policy but it's certainly understandable to have them.
posted by jonmc at 6:36 AM on July 20, 2007


jonmc: Wait a minute. Yesterday in the NFL Dogfighting thread the string-'em-up brigade was out in force, now we're all sweetness and light and compassion and rehabilitation. Call me when we get it straightened out.

I don't want to see anyone anally raped over the dog-fighting. A few lashes in the public square and enough fines to bring his lifestyle down a bit for a time would suit me fine. If that makes me all sweetness and light, because I don't think prison is a one-size-fits-all tool, then I guess I am.
posted by tyllwin at 6:51 AM on July 20, 2007


string-'em-up brigade was out in force, now we're all sweetness and light and compassion and rehabilitation. Call me when we get it straightened out

What we want to do is string them up.

What we should do is keep them under appropriate levels of supervision until their ethical, mental, and emotional lacks are fixed, and if that turns out to be impossible, keep them supervised and if need be confined in peace and relative comfort indefinitely.

The thing the vengeful tend to miss about rehabilitation is: it's not the "nice" option they sneer at. It's not "easier on the criminal", it's not even necessarily more merciful. It involves imposition of severe limitations which will only gradually be lifted, it involves emotional pain and often physical pain too (withdrawal really hurts), it involves tears, guilt, regret, and it will take as long as it takes. Could be thirty days, could be thirty years.

But designing a penal system to produce less crime is very, very hard, and you can't employ sadistic morons any more. What we will do is confine them somewhere small for a fairly arbitrary period of time where we'll do very, very little to supervise their interaction with others in the same place, we'll deprive them of some of their property, we'll label them in some arbitrary manner so that arbitrary negative consequences affect their future lives, and we'll completely ignore any and all consequences to other people caused as side effects. Then we'll pat ourselves on the back and call ourselves "good".

So no. No straightening up here. Nothing but twists.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 7:02 AM on July 20, 2007


the citizens of Montreal or Osaka are noticeably safer walking the streets at night than the citizens of Detroit.

So why are the citizens of Detroit not safe? Maybe because the people who would do them harm (having done others harm in the past) are not in prison?
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 7:15 AM on July 20, 2007


it involves tears, guilt, regret, and it will take as long as it takes. Could be thirty days, could be thirty years.

We make the mistake, I think, of treating all crime as if it's one thing.

If the crime is "selling crack on the corner," then talking about tears and regret is nonsense. If you are a convicted felon in the inner city then it's quite possibly your most rational career choice, and it's a social policy issue. If you're seriously trying to instill guilt and a change of heart because they sold illegal crack instead of legal liquor, cigarettes and guns then good luck.

If the criminal is a serial killer or serial child rapist, he's probably beyond our ability to help and it's an issue of protecting the rest of us.

If the criminal is an angsty 18 year old who steals a car and then smashes a shop window for beer and smokes, then he likely needs punishment to point out that actions have consequences.

So long as we act like it's all the same. we're doomed to failure.

So why are the citizens of Detroit not safe? Maybe because the people who would do them harm (having done others harm in the past) are not in prison?

Well, we've tried that and tried that for decades until we have a staggering percentage of our population in jail, and Detroit is far worse than when we started . Has it worked? Is there ever a point at which you would say "we need to try something else?"
posted by tyllwin at 7:20 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


No Mutant Enemy: well, maybe we need to get our priorities straight when it comes to incarceration. Many states (and I believe Michigan is among them) have mandatory minnimum sentences for drug crimes but not for violent crimes, with the side effect that truly dangerous violent felons get paroled to make room for drug dealers, which is just wrong, since job 1 of the law enforcement and penal system, before rehabilitation, before punishment, is supposed to be public safety.
posted by jonmc at 7:20 AM on July 20, 2007


I think the article makes several good and interesting points. I think the crux of it revolves around the idea of "risk management" as opposed to "rehabilitation."

Most people -- myself included -- are, I believe, unconvinced about the rehabilitative effect or ability of prison. It's fairly obvious that taking someone who's committed a crime, and throwing them in a confined space with a lot of other, indeed much worse, criminals probably isn't going to make them renounce their ways and lead a productive life.

Given this, prison becomes a place not where you send someone to be rehabilitated, but where you send them instead to be kept away from society for as long as possible: a way of managing the risk that they present. And it doesn't just stop at prison; once they have been branded a risk (convicted), they are effectively forced out of society, even when they're out of prison. All in the name of protecting society from them.

Now, one solution might be to re-evaluate prison and see if we can make it more rehabilitative, but that's both expensive, and politically a non-starter if it looks anything at all like "going soft" on criminals. When you get right down to it, the American public isn't really interested in rehabilitating criminals, at least violent ones. Particularly not if they have to spend much money on it. (Obviously this ignores the cost that just locking them up involves -- but people are happy to pay for punishment, they really, really hate paying for rehabilitation. Similarly, people are more than willing to pay for executions, although with the legal costs factored in, they're significantly more expensive than life incarceration.) The justice system in the U.S. is designed to be punitive, because many people want it to be punitive.

I think the place where this attitude could begin to change is with non-violent, particularly drug-related offenses. The incarcertation problem is becoming more obvious, and I think it's clear that throwing someone in with rapists and murders for a drug offense doesn't help anyone. Although, unfortunately, I think a wholesale change in U.S. drug laws (taxation and regulation as opposed to prohibition) isn't going to happen in my lifetime, I don't think it's too much to hope for a change in how it's dealt with in the judicial system.
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:20 AM on July 20, 2007


Thank you jonmc for once again playing devil's advocate, and pointing out the hypocrisy of it all.

Anyways,

A crime committed by a poor / black / red-haired person is still a crime. If justice really is blind, the demographic of the criminal is irrelevant.

I assure you the demographic is very much relevant. A large portion of those in prison are there for drug related offenses, and a large portion of those are non-violent offenses. Drug law disproportionately affects minorities. Look at the sentencing for crack vs. cocaine, for example.

Noone disputes that violent criminals should be locked up. Many, including myself, think that drug addiction is a disease, not a crime. Locking up sick people is a travesty.

Because it bears repeating, from the meth thread yesterday: Imagine putting drug war money towards healthcare. Its not hard if you try.

Of course, there's too much money to be made in locking people up and in health care.
posted by kableh at 7:22 AM on July 20, 2007


Is there ever a point at which you would say "we need to try something else?"

Don't be silly. Our ideas are always right, even when they fail.
posted by Avenger at 7:30 AM on July 20, 2007


It's fairly obvious that taking someone who's committed a crime, and throwing them in a confined space with a lot of other, indeed much worse, criminals probably isn't going to make them renounce their ways and lead a productive life.

This bears repeating.

Our current system turns one-time petty offenders into more serious criminals by isolating them from non-criminal society--they end up with stronger social allegiances to other inmates, who become their de facto peer group, than to the society outside the prison population. And due to the intense psychological pressures of incarceration, the social allegiances they form in prison are only that much deeper (basically, prison is like boot camp for criminals).

Locking up small-time, non-violent offenders with other more serious criminals is ridiculously counter-productive. Except from an economic standpoint: Since prison labor is cheap, and can be used to supplement state government revenue or defray infrastructure maintenance costs (a la work crews), it kind of makes economic sense to keep as many people in prison as possible. In a way isometric to the way slavery made a hell of a lot of economic sense.

(or on preview, what kableh said)
posted by saulgoodman at 7:38 AM on July 20, 2007


. Rather, there was a very short window between the start of the 1970's and the end of the 1980's when America began to experiment with concepts like rehabilitation, prison reform, freezing the death penalty, etc.

I have few memories of the 70s. I was only 5 went 1980 started. Looking back on the 70s, though, it's really amazing how progressive it was-- gays started to turn up more in the popular media, African-American pop culture and entertainment began to become more mainstream, and ERA ratification seemed just around the corner. Really, the 80s turned to be a huge cultural reversal. I never saw the 80s as a cultural reversal because I never knew anything else, but for someone with clear memories of the 70s, the turning back of the clock on so many things much have seemed like such a huge disappointment after having expected things to move forward in a clear trejectory.
posted by deanc at 7:52 AM on July 20, 2007


Your whole [...] country has turned into a sadistic torture chamber at every [...] level, inside outside, from Fear Factor to Abu Graib

Hey, Fear Factor was an import and Abu Ghiraib was notorious for worse before we took it over. Where's America unique in this regard?

Crime too high? Harsher punishment. Crime is lower? Harsher punishment must be working. Crime skyrockets again? Needs harsher punishment. Its a completely reality-proof way of thinking.

Did you notice the opposite is true too? The same excuses even work. More liberal sentencing and crime goes up, blame it on other factors.

Every comment pointing out that this would be hypocritical, unduly harsh, or just outright inappropriate in a civilized society is dugg down. These are the kind of people that make up America.

Yeah, because everyone on Digg is from America. People are mean on the Internet. Everyone, almost.
posted by erikharmon at 8:03 AM on July 20, 2007


Did you notice the opposite is true too? The same excuses even work. More liberal sentencing and crime goes up, blame it on other factors.

Yes, I could envision a situation in which this could be true. It would take a great deal of vigilance to avoid that. This is not the situation we face here in this country, however. Exactly the opposite as a matter of fact.

Now I had better leave before this thread gets pulled for upsetting delicate feelings or being too partisan.
posted by Avenger at 8:22 AM on July 20, 2007


No Mutant Enemy writes "So why are the citizens of Detroit not safe? Maybe because the people who would do them harm (having done others harm in the past) are not in prison?"

The US has more people in prison and per capita than any other nation in the world. Other nations don't suffer our rate of violent crime, yet they don't put nearly as many people in prison. Maybe there's something to that. Putting more people in prison doesn't work, because our prison system is not at all rehabilitative. They do get out eventually (if they don't have consecutive life sentences), and then what? We haven't really considered this in building our current criminal justice system.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:31 AM on July 20, 2007


An old friend told me that a person doesn't change much beyond age 25, and I'm really starting to agree with that. Yes, you can drop bad habits, but I've seen few people make drastic changes in their lives beyond that age. If they haven't started a college education, they're probably not going to get one.

So, if criminal habits are fixed in you by that time, it's probably not going to be worth the money to try to rehabilitate you. We need to start earlier - not high school, not grade school, but with the parents. Oh, wait - they had shitty childhoods too. In fact, dad's probably gone. Why? Why is this okay?

I don't have time to Google it, but I bet there's been a study of criminal behavior amongst people with fathers in the home vs. those without. I'm not going to speculate on the reasons, but in the US, black children are far, far more likely to live in a single-parent home. (Currently, 55% of black children live in a single-parent home, vs. 22% of white children. This is not new; single-parent homes have been a majority amongst blacks since 1983. Source.)
posted by desjardins at 9:33 AM on July 20, 2007


An old friend told me that a person doesn't change much beyond age 25, and I'm really starting to agree with that. Yes, you can drop bad habits, but I've seen few people make drastic changes in their lives beyond that age. If they haven't started a college education, they're probably not going to get one.

So, if criminal habits are fixed in you by that time, it's probably not going to be worth the money to try to rehabilitate you.


This is somewhat reductive and not reflective of the actual experiences of most young ex-offenders. My first post to the blue (which sank like a stone) was called Hustler No More and highlited a research document by a local social research and policy think tank that documented extensive interviews with ex-offenders. These were ex-offendrers that had turned a corner and were now mainstreamed.

Their experiences with criminal activity weren't monolithic like those presented to you on TV, or impression imparted by the news media. It's actually not so common for kids to deal drugs, get locked up, deal drugs, get locked up, get shot, die. All that might happen to a kid but the path isn't that linear. These kids describe a life of ducking in and out of both legitimate and illegitimate work. They'll get off the corners for a while and stock shelves at Walmart, or flip burgers for a while. Then they might need some fast cash for an emergency in the home, or they might get a new girl with expensive tastes. So they head back out on the corners.

Every time a kid comes off the corner and gets a legitimate job it's a fulcrum point of possibility. Every time a kid sets foot back in a school, it's a fulcrum point of possibility. But low wage employment doesn't generally deal in skills development, and urban public schools are often not capable of capitalizing on critical junctures in a child's life. The opportunities aren't seized when they present. I don't know how to change that. I wish I could change that.

And please bear in mind that criminality in urban youths occurs in a vacuum of opportunity and under the weight of crushing poverty. They need money. Their parents often can't make rent, or can't put food on the table. They can't see the longterm pay off to staying in school and they need cash now. So they go for theirs on the street. Believe me, the corner kids aren't out there wasting time doing nothing all day. They are developing a very tangible skill set that is extremely well adapted to the economics of their environment.
posted by The Straightener at 11:01 AM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


I don't think a 25 year old is a kid. I think by the time you're 25, if you haven't learned to be a responsible, law-abiding citizen, for whatever reason, it's going to be tough to teach you now.

And please bear in mind that criminality in urban youths occurs in a vacuum of opportunity and under the weight of crushing poverty.

Oh, I do. I definitely believe there are structural elements to to crime, more so than racial elements.

They are developing a very tangible skill set that is extremely well adapted to the economics of their environment.

True, and I'd imagine the skills are difficult to translate to the boardroom and that it's difficult to give up the lifestyle.

One thing not yet mentioned is the primacy of gangs in (mostly) urban areas, and that they don't just let you walk away, whether you've seen the light or not.
posted by desjardins at 11:37 AM on July 20, 2007


Thanks for this article. It, and the discussion so far, made me think about Walter Wink's description of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. This section from the article:
the discourse surrounding punishment policy invariably discounts the humanity of the thieves, drug sellers, prostitutes, rapists, and, yes, those whom we put to death. It gives insufficient weight to the welfare, to the humanity, of those who are knitted together with offenders in webs of social and psychic affiliation. What is more, institutional arrangements for dealing with criminal offenders in the United States have evolved to serve expressive as well as instrumental ends. We have wanted to “send a message,” and we have done so with a vengeance. In the process, we have created facts. We have answered the question, who is to blame for the domestic maladies that beset us? We have constructed a national narrative. We have created scapegoats, indulged our need to feel virtuous, and assuaged our fears. We have met the enemy, and the enemy is them.
Seems to tie in with Wink's observations:
Once children have been indoctrinated into the expectations of a dominator society, they may never outgrow the need to locate all evil outside themselves. Even as adults they tend to scapegoat others for all that is wrong in the world. They continue to depend on group identification and the upholding of social norms for a sense of well-being.
posted by eckeric at 11:57 AM on July 20, 2007


True, and I'd imagine the skills are difficult to translate to the boardroom and that it's difficult to give up the lifestyle.

Translate to the boardroom? These guys can't even read.
posted by The Straightener at 12:31 PM on July 20, 2007


When California executed former gang leader Tookie Williams in late 2005, I felt that we lost a good example of how people could rise above their backgrounds and transform their lives. "Williams has denounced gang violence and written children's books with an anti-gang message, donating the proceeds to anti-gang community groups."

Sure, some people will say that he was only doing that because he was on death row, but not every death row inmate bothers to do that, and his motivation for sending a positive message is less important than the message being sent. Having him alive as an anti-gang example was more beneficial to California than executing him was.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:42 PM on July 20, 2007


“could it be...THE KIND OF PEOPLE YOU ARE?????????” - posted by lastobelus

Yeah, we’re all dumb, violent, sex-repressed bigoted torturers here. No one has protested or spent time and money fighting any of the things you mention. None of us volunteered to help anyone after the Katrina disaster, nope. ALL of us are that way.

No Mutant Enemy I can ignore. You should know better.

I’d argue that the policies are by design, that is not merely racist. The creation of a subclass benefits certain elements of society. As does a lower education level (vis the attack on public education).

“However, it wasn't long before that experiment was given up as a bad job and you returned to the chain gang.”

Y’know, this has always struck me as a core problem. No one wants to have a failure on their hands so no one is willing to fully investigate social programs with a scientific approach. Success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan - all that. But more than that, there seems to be reticence to spend time/money/effort on the capital costs to employ ongoing systems that could be more efficient or beneficial in the long run.
I don’t think that’s the result of liberal or conservative thinking. In one case I think liberal thinking sabotages it because there’s this drive to try something new and scrap the old program before it comes to fruition. On the other hand conservative thinking tends not to allow a new program to start unchallenged, so it can be hamstrung before it gets going.
But I don’t think either philosophy has done enough damage to society to prevent any real change.
It appears more that U.S. society is no longer willing to take any risks of any kind. Obviously people with serious capital have always been that way, but there was far more willingness to push for - and sustain - change from the middle and lower classes. Particularly after WWII - and for the most part I suspect because of universal public education. Granted G.W. Carver et.al. still faced inequity, but there were advances purely merit based. Hell, it’s one of our core beliefs (Ben Franklin). That all men were equal and being well-educated man was superior to being a King (Tom Jefferson was a polymath).
That this has systematically been changed to the present condition is not, I think, an accident or a “natural” condition of the species, nor caused merely by the “type of people we are.”

Now I grant that there is an opportunity for any poor young black man to advance himself in spite of the systemic resistances levied against him. But by the same token, not every poor young black man is G.W. Carver or Ben Franklin. Not a hell of a lot of rich young white kids are either.
So who benefits from disadvantaging - systemically - these folks?

Obviously if a prison sentence continues to carry with it a heavy social stigmata, it’s not going to make much difference how well a program rehabilitates someone.
Indeed, consider the apprehension (or often derision) with which someone who comes out of prison “saved” is met with.
The cynicism is so pervasive, not only because of the expectation of recidivism, but precisely because, perhaps unconsiously, the cynic knows how heavily the odds are stacked against someone coming out and making anything worthwhile of themselves.

There used to be a solid working class of black folks - poor perhaps, but working. That doesn’t exist anymore in many areas. Many of the jobs are gone. The property values in the areas they live are abyssmal, so the school system is not well-funded. So they couldn’t get good jobs and can’t really scrape together the capital to get to one.
All this quite apart from the situation with illegal immigration and companies employing them for less money they could pay someone legally.

Money spent getting people in poor areas education would seriously put a dent in crime as well. And would cut the cost of maintaining prisons and cops.
People not wanting to spend money on that is a symptom.
WHY don’t they want to? is the question. It’d be easier to maintain.
And I’d have to agree with kableh - there’s money to be made in one, not in the other. Plus an exploitable resource. Plus many other factors if you think about them (As many of you obviously have)
posted by Smedleyman at 12:55 PM on July 20, 2007


Translate to the boardroom? These guys can't even read.

Right, so what was your point in mentioning the skills? You might pick up entrepreneurial or sales skills while being a drug dealer, but so what? Not exactly something you can list on a resume.
posted by desjardins at 3:04 PM on July 20, 2007


I'm sure this has been said upthread several times in different ways, but it bears repeating.

To any moral person, a pot dealer sentenced to a decade of being locked in a cage, beaten and raped, only to die of AIDS is one of the most abhorrent things imaginable.

To most of America, it is not only a joke, but a tired cliche at that.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 3:24 PM on July 20, 2007



The business about people not changing after 25 is just plain wrong. Most violence is committed by young men-- by the time they get to their 30's and 40's, the violence rate is a fraction of that of those in their 20s. this is true cross-culturally.

Also, this idea that black people are incarcerated more for drugs because they use more drugs is simply wrong-- white people use more and are less likely to get caught, less likely to get convicted if caught and less likely to be incarcerated if convicted.

Further, we actually do know ways of improving on the pathetic success rate of incarceration: education, drug treatment and access to jobs all can make a huge difference. there are ways to make sentences like house arrest and electronic monitoring work, too.

Simply eliminating mandatory sentencing for drugs (or making the mandatories sane like 3 years, not 15, 20) would have an enormous positive impact. Enforcing drug laws to target violent dealers and leave alone those that don't disrupt neighborhoods is another.

Improving early childcare via home visits by nurses, prenatal care, excellent daycare and other things that bolster vulnerable families and give poor kids a chance at succeeding in school, not dropping out, also would be a wise investment and could help drive us away from punitive policy

it isn't that we don't know effective policy alternatives, it's that there's no will to implement them.

.
posted by Maias at 4:08 PM on July 20, 2007


I'm sure you already know this but the calls for burning the kitten torturers are simply a reaction of disgust by people sitting in front of computer screens.

No it is not simply a reaction of disgust on computer screens. It is an expression of an attitude endemic to the United States, as measurable by statistics comparing your criminal justice system to that of the rest of western civilization, as reported in the original post.
posted by lastobelus at 9:15 PM on July 20, 2007


So why are the citizens of Detroit not safe? Maybe because the people who would do them harm (having done others harm in the past) are not in prison?
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 10:15 AM on July 20


Do you believe that Americans are inherently more violent than people from other countries?

Because if Americans jail many more of their citizens per capita than other countries, and American cities are still less safe than cities in other countries, then there are only two possible explanations: (1) Americans are genetically more violent (and therefore more of them deserve incarceration), or (2) something about American society creates more criminals per capita than in other countries.

What do you think that might be?
posted by joannemerriam at 10:28 PM on July 20, 2007


Before 1965, public attitudes on the welfare state and on race, as measured by the annually administered General Social Survey,

The General Social Surveys did not begin until 1972. I wonder how much of the rest of this article is crap. (Most, I surmise.)
posted by Crotalus at 11:23 PM on July 20, 2007


Right, so what was your point in mentioning the skills? You might pick up entrepreneurial or sales skills while being a drug dealer, but so what? Not exactly something you can list on a resume.

Lockpicking is a skill. Being able to spot plainclothes is a skill. Cutting merch is a skill.

The Straightener is talking about adaptation to the environment and opportunities present. Not fairy tale fiction. I mean -- boardrooms?
posted by dreamsign at 2:02 AM on July 22, 2007


No Mutant Enemy I can ignore. You should know better.
There's a better system of justice than punishing law-breakers? Tell me more, because I thought that a law which can be broken without sanction is, y'know, more like a guideline. If jail doesn't work, fix it, don't just abandon it.
posted by No Mutant Enemy at 11:11 AM on July 24, 2007


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