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A Profile in Courage
March 30, 2009 5:58 PM   Subscribe

With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different--and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter.
Sen. Jim Webb takes on the real third rail in American politics, the entire criminal justice system.
posted by empath (112 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also, he was very impressive and made alot of compelling arguments on the Diane Rehm show today.
posted by empath at 6:01 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I believe that American ingenuity can discover better ways to deal with the problems of drugs and nonviolent criminal behavior

Its all fine to point out the problem -- as you see it -- and to even admit that you do not have the answers. Leaving the solution to "American ingenuity" is a cop-out. Clearly that's been failing to date.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 6:04 PM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Even admitting there is a problem is a pretty radical step, IMO. No one else even wants to talk about it.

We're about to collapse the government of Mexico because of the drug war, and everyone seems to have their fucking heads in the sand. This is something that needs to change urgently.
posted by empath at 6:06 PM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'd say the former is a possibility.
posted by swift at 6:10 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different--and vastly counterproductive. Obviously, the answer is the latter.

This is America; we don't have to limit ourselves to one or the other! I'm doing my part by being as evil and counterproductive as I can possibly be.

The sky's the limit, America. Don't stop believin'!
posted by Parasite Unseen at 6:10 PM on March 30, 2009 [5 favorites]


I'll be watching this with some small bit of hope.
posted by odinsdream at 6:12 PM on March 30, 2009


Webb voted like a Republican Obama on the FISA/telecom immunity thing, and so I've yet to forgive him for that.

However, as a registered voter in Virgnia, played a tiny part in bringing Webb into the Senate, it makes me proud to see my elected official taking on these important and politically perilous issues.
posted by genome4hire at 6:14 PM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's an interesting article, and it even touches on some of the less convenient facts – such as the overwhelming incarceration of so many African Americans, out of any kind of proportion to the rest of the population. Of course, Webb manages to totally sidestep the first part of any solution: the legalization, regulation and taxation of marijuana and the decriminalization of other drugs, combined with a major public health program that treats addiction to other drugs as a disease rather than a criminal activity, and the use of the massive funding previously spent on keeping people in jail on drug-related offenses for a major public works program to put them to productive work.

Still, it's something, and it should not be allowed to blow over.
posted by graymouser at 6:16 PM on March 30, 2009 [10 favorites]


I was amazed to find a quote somewhere, I believe it was from Jefferson-- someone way far back in our history, not recent about how if Americans were given a choice between funding prisons and funding schools, they'd always go for the prisons. If this stuff is that deep-rooted, I worry that we may never see sense.

OTOH, right now it's obvious to everyone that there are much bigger problems than teenagers doing drugs and having sex. If they can see that the horrifying outcomes that people predict during every drug panic-- the middle class will stop working, all kids will die of drugs or become hookers/pimps, your kid won't get into an Ivy League school!!!-- have never occurred even when we had 1/3 of people in their 20's nationwide admitting to trying cocaine (1979/80), we might just make some progress.
posted by Maias at 6:19 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


It seems to me that the first step we as a nation should take is to decide what exactly we mean to accomplish with imprisonment. Is the purpose to punish, rehabilitate, or to simply warehouse societies "undesirables"? Currently we seem to operate under the assumption that prisons are simply a place to put offenders, out of sight and out of mind, until they're released, with little or no attention paid to the reason they've been put there in the first place.

And that bugs me.

I remember being taught that the Puritan jail system, which the current system (I was told) descended from, was a huge step forward because imprisonment was more humane than the alternative at the time, and the imprisonment was meant to be a form of rehabilitation. Over the intervening century, the notion of rehabilitation seems to have fallen out of favor, which seems a shame.

Our attitudes, as a society, about teaching and guiding our children has taken huge steps forward while our attitudes towards teaching and guiding our adults seems to have fallen behind.
posted by lekvar at 6:24 PM on March 30, 2009 [5 favorites]


Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog.
- Mark Twain, Speech, 11/23/1900

I think a lot of our problems come from treating 'licit' and 'illicit' drugs differently. In a nutshell, we took the wrong turn when we didn't listen to the Shafer Commission.
posted by mullingitover at 6:28 PM on March 30, 2009 [12 favorites]


Mr. Webb, it's entirely possible that we have not the most evil people, but simply the most evil people per capita. In fact, if you think of being incarcerated as the likely outcome of being both evil and stupid, it's entirely possible that of Western nations, we're number one.

This is especially apparent when you think of all the evil, criminal and stupid people currently outside of jail, such as those found in our former executive branch. This isn't to say that there aren't plenty of people in prison who don't deserve to be, but that's rather independent of the question of our evil.
posted by klangklangston at 6:34 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Hmm my warm fuzzy new-car Obamabuzz was starting to wear off. I wonder if this guy can keep me all yes-we-can. That would be swell.
posted by Bokononist at 6:39 PM on March 30, 2009


American criminal justice consists virtually entirely of the taxpayer payrolling high school jock cops to transfer simpletons on the street for the plethora of sundry possession offenses into the prison system. In fact I think if you are born with an IQ of 80 or less you are basically guaranteed a spot in prison someday. Is it in anyway socially efficient to pay for the imprisonment of poor dumb people that Darwin failed to smile upon? I have no idea. First, I have never experienced America in which all these nonviolent plebeians crowd the streets, although I doubt this would significantly inconvenience me given the enormity of geographic space and the minisculity of a single person and the resultant statistics of my encountering them etc. Second, these people may very well be better off in prison, and therefore we can look at prison and criminal enforcement as a massive social welfare system we didn't even know we had. Pats on the back all around. Tazers for everybody.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 6:44 PM on March 30, 2009


Part of the problem is our system of government. We have an awful lot of elected officials. It is much easier to scare the public than it is to educate them.

Two people run for DA. It is competition to be tougher on crime. A candidate who says she will not ask for as many active sentences or will not prosecute certain offenses will get buried in an election.

Lower court judges run for re-election. The only way they can be beaten is if they are perceived to be "soft on crime." So the sitting judges act as prosecutors so that they will be safe when they come up for re-election.

State representatives see unfair laws, but they can't do anything about it because they will be called "soft on crime." If a legislator sponsored a bill to treat opiates and opiate derivatives differently under the law, for example, that legislator would get buried in the next election for being soft on crime. For this reason, laws only get tougher. They almost never get relaxed.

In my state, the appellate judges are elected, too. Same thing. If they start finding that the State is violating people's rights under the Constitution, they will be knocked out in the next election.

So the system punishes legislators for writing reasonable legislation, it punishes District Attorneys for having reasonable policies, and it punished Judges -- both trial and appellate -- for following the Constitution. Did I mention what motivates people to vote for Sheriff? Probably don't need to.

Where I live, I would have trial judges get appointed by the governor, and then have the local bar where they practice give them the thumbs up or thumbs down every four years. When judges make decisions based on their desire to get re-elected, it is a bad system.

But that's about all I have. The system is so geared toward being "tough" on crime that I am not sure what can be done. I suppose if the voters could be educated, that would help. Unfortunately, educating voters seems to be daunting task.
posted by flarbuse at 6:45 PM on March 30, 2009 [32 favorites]


Oh yes, I absolutely adore Jim Webb for this. But it makes me very sad that this is still such a "radical" issue. But, there's still hope that this is starting to come around.
posted by lunit at 6:45 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's a bunch of prison reform organizations (a lot of them are U.S. based):

*Drug Policy Alliance
*Critical Resistance
*360 Degrees
*Prison Activist Resource Center
*The Sentencing Project
*Prison Policy Initiative
*Families Against Mandatory Minimums
*Vera Institute of Justice
*National Institute of Institutions and Alternatives
*Penal Reform International
*Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants

Actually, a lot of these organizations could really use your support. Or the local organizations near you. Funding for criminal justice policy and advocacy took a huge hit from Madoff - Jeht, one of the few foundations funding this work, had to close its doors entirely. There are fewer funders out there for this work than one might think.
posted by lunit at 7:06 PM on March 30, 2009 [20 favorites]


I would venture to say that, "we are home to the most evil people on earth," while harsh in its phrasing, is probably closer to the truth than to say that we are doing something counterproductive.

To be posture as a "visionary" like Jim Webb and denounce our current criminal justice system will get you headlines, but will actually accomplish little or nothing.

The question is not, "Why do we lock up so many of our citizens?" but "why do we need to lock up so many of our citizens?" Because, trust me (as one working in the criminal justice system every day), most of these people need to be locked up. It is actually pretty damned hard to get locked up for any considerable length of time.

The incarceration rate has a lot to do with the nature of the U.S. as a consumer society. Our country is great at creating consumer appetites for cars, clothes, gadgets, and entertainment, but we are getting very bad at educating people to work jobs that pay enough to afford the things for which people have appetites. When you create ravenous appetites for luxury, on the one hand, while failing to give those very same people the means to satisfy those appetites, crime is often the result: robberies, burglaries, and other forms of theft to be able to afford luxuries one could never earn the means to pay for; drug use to numb the depression that results from living in a society where you are bombarded with images of luxury and consumption that remains out of reach; and drug sales to help people numb themselves in this way.

If we lived in a culture what was not saturated with advertisements of consumer bliss, sexual abandon, and inexplicable leisure, I think a lot of our crime problem would go away. But right now our society creates a vast population with huge cravings and no way to satisfy them, or dull their resulting depression and suffering, short of crime.

If we don't fix the societal problems that creates these frustrated masses who become criminals, no sort of criminal justice reform will work. If we soften up criminal sentencing laws, there will be an inevitable backlash. The people locked up right now really do need to be locked up, by and large (with notable exceptions in the extraordinarily harsh federal sentencing laws). The thing we need to fix is not so much the criminal law, but the societal problems that creates these criminals.
posted by jayder at 7:18 PM on March 30, 2009 [14 favorites]


It is actually pretty damned hard to get locked up for any considerable length of time.

What are you talking about? How many people do you know that have tried smoking pot? Or... how many people do you know that haven't?

It's actually really easy to get locked up. Especially if you're a person of color. And once you're in there, it's even easier to get locked up again. And again and again and again. Prisons teach people to be better criminals, among other things.
posted by lunit at 7:23 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Cut your military funding in half and you'd have enough to pay for anything you could dream of, and still have the largest military in the world.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:27 PM on March 30, 2009 [16 favorites]


I would venture to say that, "we are home ...

Summary: Advertisements make people commit crimes.
posted by kiltedtaco at 7:28 PM on March 30, 2009


It's actually really easy to get locked up. Especially if you're a person of color. And once you're in there, it's even easier to get locked up again. And again and again and again. Prisons teach people to be better criminals, among other things.

Note that I said "locked up for a considerable length of time." In your frenzy to refute me, you didn't even read my comment closely. What in the world does the number of people I know who have tried pot have to do with anything I discussed in my comment?

I suspect you are just mouthing some talking points you have heard or read, without any personal experience of the thing you are discussing.
posted by jayder at 7:35 PM on March 30, 2009


It is actually pretty damned hard to get locked up for any considerable length of time.

One in 31 of adults in this country would disagree with you.

We're home to either the evilest people on earth, or the dumbest.
posted by rtha at 7:37 PM on March 30, 2009


We're home to either the evilest people on earth, or the dumbest.

For better or for worse, the two groups are not mutually exclusive.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 7:42 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I suspect you are just mouthing some talking points you have heard or read, without any personal experience of the thing you are discussing.

Oy. I work in prisoner re-entry.

Note that I said "locked up for a considerable length of time."

Yeah, I know that you said that. Thing is, most people in prison are actually there for very short periods of time. Just over and over and over again.

A lot of them start with simple marijuana possession. Get locked up. Can't get a job or housing or insert necessity here. Start dealing. Get locked up again. Repeat repeat repeat.

Not saying everyone needs to be released immediately, but we spend upwards of $40,000 each year incarcerating people who shouldn't even be there in the first place.
posted by lunit at 7:43 PM on March 30, 2009 [21 favorites]


It is EASY to get locked up for a considerable length of time. And for non-violent offenses, too.
posted by agregoli at 7:46 PM on March 30, 2009


(I work in appeals. We don't win many.)
posted by agregoli at 7:47 PM on March 30, 2009 [7 favorites]


jayder: If we lived in a culture what was not saturated with advertisements of consumer bliss, sexual abandon, and inexplicable leisure, I think a lot of our crime problem would go away. But right now our society creates a vast population with huge cravings and no way to satisfy them, or dull their resulting depression and suffering, short of crime.

Here are some crime rate statistics.

Total crimes per capita

#1 Dominica: 113.822 per 1,000 people
#2 New Zealand: 105.881 per 1,000 people
#3 Finland: 101.526 per 1,000 people
#4 Denmark: 92.8277 per 1,000 people
#5 Chile: 88.226 per 1,000 people
#6 United Kingdom: 85.5517 per 1,000 people
#7 Montserrat: 80.3982 per 1,000 people
#8 United States: 80.0645 per 1,000 people
#9 Netherlands: 79.5779 per 1,000 people
#10 South Africa: 77.1862 per 1,000 people
#11 Germany: 75.9996 per 1,000 people
#12 Canada: 75.4921 per 1,000 people
#13 Norway: 71.8639 per 1,000 people
#14 France: 62.1843 per 1,000 people
#15 Seychelles: 52.9265 per 1,000 people
#16 Hungary: 44.9763 per 1,000 people
#17 Estonia: 43.3601 per 1,000 people
#18 Czech Republic: 38.2257 per 1,000 people
#19 Italy: 37.9633 per 1,000 people
#20 Switzerland: 36.1864 per 1,000 people


Burglaries per capita

#1 Australia: 21.7454 per 1,000 people
#2 Dominica: 18.7892 per 1,000 people
#3 Denmark: 18.3299 per 1,000 people
#4 Estonia: 17.4576 per 1,000 people
#5 Finland: 16.7697 per 1,000 people
#6 New Zealand: 16.2763 per 1,000 people
#7 United Kingdom: 13.8321 per 1,000 people
#8 Poland: 9.46071 per 1,000 people
#9 Canada: 8.94425 per 1,000 people
#10 South Africa: 8.89764 per 1,000 people
#11 Montserrat: 8.24323 per 1,000 people
#12 Iceland: 8.11156 per 1,000 people
#13 Switzerland: 8.06303 per 1,000 people
#14 Slovenia: 7.93734 per 1,000 people
#15 Czech Republic: 7.24841 per 1,000 people
#16 Hungary: 7.15849 per 1,000 people
#17 United States: 7.09996 per 1,000 people
#18 France: 6.11634 per 1,000 people
#19 Ireland: 5.73755 per 1,000 people
#20 Netherlands: 5.55531 per 1,000 people


Robberies per capita

#1 Spain: 12.3265 per 1,000 people
#2 Chile: 6.92522 per 1,000 people
#3 Costa Rica: 4.79109 per 1,000 people
#4 South Africa: 4.4434 per 1,000 people
#5 Estonia: 3.56639 per 1,000 people
#6 Mexico: 2.02555 per 1,000 people
#7 Portugal: 1.6237 per 1,000 people
#8 United Kingdom: 1.57433 per 1,000 people
#9 Uruguay: 1.57114 per 1,000 people
#10 Poland: 1.38838 per 1,000 people
#11 United States: 1.38527 per 1,000 people
#12 Latvia: 1.37991 per 1,000 people
#13 Venezuela: 1.37833 per 1,000 people
#14 Lithuania: 1.21601 per 1,000 people
#15 Australia: 1.16048 per 1,000 people
#16 Netherlands: 1.13549 per 1,000 people
#17 Zimbabwe: 0.974838 per 1,000 people
#18 Mauritius: 0.947197 per 1,000 people
#19 Russia: 0.923114 per 1,000 people
#20 Jamaica: 0.851974 per 1,000 people

And incarceration rates.

#1 United States: 715 per 100,000 people
#2 Russia: 584 per 100,000 people
#3 Belarus: 554 per 100,000 people
#4 Palau: 523 per 100,000 people
#5 Belize: 459 per 100,000 people
#6 Suriname: 437 per 100,000 people
#7 Dominica: 420 per 100,000 people
#8 Ukraine: 416 per 100,000 people
#9 Bahamas, The: 410 per 100,000 people
#10 South Africa: 402 per 100,000 people
#11 Kyrgyzstan: 390 per 100,000 people
#12 Singapore: 388 per 100,000 people
#13 Kazakhstan: 386 per 100,000 people
#14 Barbados: 367 per 100,000 people
#15 Panama: 354 per 100,000 people
#16 Trinidad and Tobago: 351 per 100,000 people
#17 Thailand: 340 per 100,000 people
#18 Estonia: 339 per 100,000 people
#19 Latvia: 339 per 100,000 people
#20 Saint Kitts and Nevis: 338 per 100,000

I chose to specifically focus on burglaries and robberies because they are the crimes with the most direct profit motive.

You'll note that incarceration rates do not correlate with crime rates. You'll also note that the British consistently rate higher than Americans in all three categories I mentioned. I'll leave it up to others to conclude that the British are more evil than Americans.
posted by Kattullus at 7:49 PM on March 30, 2009 [60 favorites]


Having spent 5 years in Club Fed, there is this. Inmates perform various jobs such as making uniforms for the military....this is jus one job that they do. Their payment is minimal so it is a good deal for the government.

Add that to the welfare payments to judges, probation officers, prison workers, lawyers, and police who need to enforce various drug laws....and we have a system that has the force of unions to not change.


The welfare Caddilacs are driven by the best members of our society.
posted by stirfry at 7:49 PM on March 30, 2009 [11 favorites]


Summary: Advertisements make people commit crimes.

No, fail. That isn't what jayder is saying at all.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:49 PM on March 30, 2009


There's a good point in there somewhere Jayder. The US seems to be good at producing criminals. US citizens generally seem to be unhappy, angry, scared, and assholes. I don't know where it starts, maybe it's the capitalist idea we're drilled with- every man for himself, screw everyone over to make a dollar. Ripping off your neighbor is fair game. This nation seems to encourage the worst parts of the human ego and what we get ....is what we have. That coupled with the fact that our policies are reactionary and heavy handed about on almost every issue equals one fucked up country ( with some cool things in it), or vice versa.


Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog.
- Mark Twain, Speech, 11/23/1900


That's one of the best quotes I've ever read.
posted by Liquidwolf at 7:50 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'd say the former is a possibility.

So would I, but I'm not sure that those are the people who are actually *in* the jails.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:09 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jayder isn't entirely wrong -- one of the reasons we have so many people in jail in this country is that our culture teaches us, every day, that a person's worth is measured entirely by the amount of shit he or she accumulates. Our economy is structured so that it can't continue to function unless all of us, all the time, buy as much shit as we can possibly buy. "Look at this cool stuff. Everybody who's anybody has one of these. You've got to get one of these right now. If you don't, nobody will want to have sex with you." It's ubiquitous.

That said -- I've been locked up, for a very short period of time, years ago, as a consequence of a brief bout with stupidity. Being white, employable and from a middle-class family, I did my thirty days, took a deep breath, and resolved to refrain from excessive stupidity in the future -- and that was that. Most of the people I was locked up with, however, had been inside before, and fully expected to be inside again; it was just a part of their lives. They were, for the most part, there for petty, bullshit drug offenses. They didn't "need to be" locked up. Being locked up didn't do them any good, and it didn't do society any good. Just the opposite -- it put their families on welfare, took away their ability to hold a decent job, and made them casually dismissive of the idea that they could do anything at all to improve their lives. I went into jail terrified that I was being thrown into a den of horrible predators. I was surprised by the number of my fellow inmates who were nice, decent people; but I was also shocked at how cynical and hopeless almost all of them were.

Our "corrections" system is criminally insane. Everybody who's given the matter any thought at all knows that; but our politicians aren't allowed to say it. It's pretty to think that Jim Webb might have just made a dent in the wall of delusion.
posted by steambadger at 8:13 PM on March 30, 2009 [19 favorites]


Another instance where powerful government lobbies and unions wreck things: CCPOA

Why is this the most powerful political force in California?
posted by tybstar at 8:20 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Either we are home to the most evil people on earth

I think it's pretty clear, given the way that politicians in this country advance, that this sentence is absolutely true. But it's not about the people in jail.
posted by Malor at 8:25 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


You'll note that incarceration rates do not correlate with crime rates.

Must be aggravation - caused by all that excess evil. No wonder you mob are always invading people.
posted by pompomtom at 8:26 PM on March 30, 2009


Its all fine to point out the problem -- as you see it -- and to even admit that you do not have the answers. Leaving the solution to "American ingenuity" is a cop-out. Clearly that's been failing to date.

I'm sure he has plenty of ideas, there are tons of people out there looking into how to solve the problem, but Jim Webb just wants to get the "stamp" of a non-partisan board looking into the problem.

There was a study the other day showing that while as bad as the drug war might be, it didn't actually account for that much of the people in prison.

It is actually pretty damned hard to get locked up for any considerable length of time.

This is the whole basis for your post, yet you don't actually give any actual evidence for it being true. You're not comparing, for example, the 'difficulty' of getting into prison in the U.S. vs. Spain or Japan. In fact, what do you even mean when you say it's "hard" to get put in prison.

Anyway, the rest of your post is just nonsense. Americans are more "consumerist" then the Japanese? Really? Come on.

Obviously the 'difficulty' of getting into prison varies a great deal depending on where you live and where you come from. (what kind of education you have, your financial resources, how zealous local authorities are, etc. The vast majority of people are imprisoned on state laws by state prosecutors)
posted by delmoi at 8:28 PM on March 30, 2009


"Look at this cool stuff. Everybody who's anybody has one of these. You've got to get one of these right now. If you don't, nobody will want to have sex with you." It's ubiquitous.

You forgot the other side of the equation which is even more evil genius and nefarious: "OMG I won't sleep with, hell I won't even acknowledge the existence of, anyone who doesn't have on of those cool things."
posted by spicynuts at 8:32 PM on March 30, 2009


Wow, there's a gadget for that? (Is it an iPhone?)
posted by ryanrs at 8:34 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


By the way, The U.S. actually has more prisoners then China and India combined. India actually has a very low prisoner population, about 700,000.

Not per capita, In total.

(and by the way, it isn't because China executes a lot of people, they only do about 1,000 executions a year. Hardly a drop in the bucket compared to their, or our, prisoner populations)
posted by delmoi at 8:34 PM on March 30, 2009


lunit: Here's a bunch of prison reform organizations (a lot of them are U.S. based):

Fantastic, but please don't forget:

The Innocence Project
posted by kid ichorous at 8:36 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Total crimes per capita

#1 Dominica: 113.822 per 1,000 people
#2 New Zealand: 105.881 per 1,000 people


Holy shit New Zealand has the second highest crime rate in the world...oh hang on
posted by dydecker at 8:47 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


"It seems to me that the first step we as a nation should take is to decide what exactly we mean to accomplish with imprisonment. Is the purpose to punish, rehabilitate, or to simply warehouse societies 'undesirables'?"

That is exactly the right question. I think it's very important that we decide what we want from the system we have, or we'll end up with the sort of system we have now, which is mostly driven by hot-button campaign politics and special interests profiting off the status quo. And it doesn't work.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:52 PM on March 30, 2009


If they can see that the horrifying outcomes that people predict during every drug panic-- the middle class will stop working, all kids will die of drugs or become hookers/pimps, your kid won't get into an Ivy League school!!!

Maybe the problem is that these people did get into Ivy League schools and started running the financial system.

Seriously, though, while I'm really pretty much on board with the idea that the war on drugs is a failure and we ought to re-evaluate our public policy, I worry that there is no shortage of potential horrifying outcomes, especially if you let Phillip Morris push anything it wants.

I know there is a broad territory between "possession means trafficking means 25 years in prison" and the Marlboro Man hawking heroin. Hopefully that's where sensible heads are moving.
posted by weston at 8:56 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


dydecker: Holy shit New Zealand has the second highest crime rate in the world...oh hang on

Well, there's total crime and there's violent crime, which is what the New Zealand government site you linked to is talking about, so that's comparing apples and oranges. Also, there are some very valid criticisms of the UN's methodology when compiling world-wide crime statistics (in brief it's that the UN relies on the crime rate statistics of member countries which measure things slightly differently) but as far as I know it is the best study there is. More specific crime rate comparisons, e.g. burglary rates, is much more apples-to-apples.
posted by Kattullus at 9:03 PM on March 30, 2009


"If we don't fix the societal problems that creates these frustrated masses who become criminals, no sort of criminal justice reform will work. If we soften up criminal sentencing laws, there will be an inevitable backlash. The people locked up right now really do need to be locked up, by and large (with notable exceptions in the extraordinarily harsh federal sentencing laws). The thing we need to fix is not so much the criminal law, but the societal problems that creates these criminals."

Well, the thing is the government only has control over a few things which would help, but they would help. Such as education, social welfare, freely available medical care, particularly mental health facilities, community programs, etc. You know, all that liberal stuff. It works. More opportunities and less desperation mean less crime.

But the issue remains that our criminal justice system contributes to the problem rather than resolves it in any way. Rehab is not funded well enough, or at all in many cases. Being in prison cuts off a lot of opportunities, particularly as far as employment, and that is the single largest contributor to recidivism is the inability to gain legitimate means of income. There are a lot of things which contribute to the problem we have now, but not doing anything about our criminal justice system will inhibit any other gains we might make elsewhere and is negligent.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:06 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I'm sure he has plenty of ideas, there are tons of people out there looking into how to solve the problem, but Jim Webb just wants to get the 'stamp' of a non-partisan board looking into the problem. "

I think he's starting a conversation we need to have as a country, and in a serious way, not just as a way to make your political opponent look "weak on crime," which is generally the way we've discussed it in the last 30 years or so.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:09 PM on March 30, 2009




"I know there is a broad territory between 'possession means trafficking means 25 years in prison' and the Marlboro Man hawking heroin. Hopefully that's where sensible heads are moving."

Well, the way it's been done in some cases is providing maintenance doses to some of the worst case addicts, much like methadone, so a user can become functional enough to start making better decisions. Getting clean junk at the right dose prevents health complications and doesn't make an addict high, but does bring them to a normal state, which is where you have to start if you're going to deal with a problem like addiction. I don't think we're ever going to really see what you're worried about. Although, back in great-grandma's day, they sold a lot of opium over the counter. Cocaine, too, though Freud even had to admit eventually that its efficacy was much more limited than he thought when he first tried it. The world did not fall apart. There were Victorians, however, so something to consider.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:16 PM on March 30, 2009


Kattullus, I think the study you linked to is really quite meaningless. For instance burglaries:

Australia - 21.7454 per 1,000 people
Spain - 0.591359 per 1,000

LOL. I got burgled by the gas man when I lived in Spain. There is simply no comparison.

At the bottom it says "Crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report crime, than actual prevalence."
posted by dydecker at 9:18 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Either we are home to the most evil people on earth or we are doing something different--and vastly counterproductive.

Once again. Why the exclusive or? Embrace the power of and!
posted by eriko at 9:24 PM on March 30, 2009


In general I eschew the notion of evil, but if any nation could lay claim to such a title the US could make a good run of it.

But, major kudos to Webb for this, I hope it goes somewhere.
posted by edgeways at 9:25 PM on March 30, 2009


"combined with a major public health program that treats addiction to other drugs as a disease rather than a criminal activity, and the use of the massive funding previously spent on keeping people in jail on drug-related offenses for a major public works program to put them to productive work."

I hesitate to get into the disease model too much. But treating addiction as a public health issue is really how policy should be driven, IMO, not really getting into specific ideas about what addiction means to the addict.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:38 PM on March 30, 2009


Worth revisiting a couple recent posts.

I think it is very interesting (and certainly demonstrated in these threads) how vehement people are about what's going on with imprisonment in America, but in fact good data is not at all what would you could hope for, what's there is very hard to interpret, and that what statistics we can come up with may suggest that, per the myths about prison growth article from the second Mefi link above, a lot of assumptions about it are arguably not based in reality. I for one found the "5 myths" article very challenging, particularly the assertions that among the biggest drivers of prison population growth are relatively short (median 2 year) sentences for violent and property crimes, and the suggestion that what the growth in the per capita imprisonment rate may largely represent is a transition from mental hospitalization to incarceration.

I don't know how well those assertions, for example, hold up to scrutiny, and neither does anybody here. To me it seems enormously complicated, and chalking it all up to "yup, the U.S. IS evil" or that it's all the drug war or all about a culture of materialism is baseless, unproductive speculation. In this case I think more study is in fact what is needed. I hope it gets done and done well and I do think that Senator Webb has exhibited admirable leadership in bringing the issue to this point.
posted by nanojath at 9:49 PM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


This is the whole basis for your post, yet you don't actually give any actual evidence for it being true. You're not comparing, for example, the 'difficulty' of getting into prison in the U.S. vs. Spain or Japan. In fact, what do you even mean when you say it's "hard" to get put in prison.

Anyway, the rest of your post is just nonsense. Americans are more "consumerist" then the Japanese? Really? Come on.


I don't have a whole theory worked out, but I have the sense that individualist ideology is not so pervasive in Japan as it is in the U.S., that there is not a massive underclass in Japan that is perpetually behind everyone else, and that there are certain cultural expectations in Japan that do not exist in the U.S. --- for example, I've read that it is considered shameful in Japan to accumulate significant consumer debt, and that many if not most credit-card holders in Japan pay off their credit cards in full every month. The cultural differences, perhaps, explain why consumerism is not the pernicious crime-breeding force that it is in the U.S. I have a vague sense that there are more powerful and binding cultural norms in Japan that encourage some basic level of mutual respect, hard work, and education, and that there is not a huge segment of society that is essentially cut off from opportunity for dignity and prosperity as there is in the U.S.

By contrast, in the U.S., the media broadcasts a vision of the good life into the homes of people who have no chance of actually sharing in this good life. This is how media in the U.S. creates this culture of resentment and hopelessness into which kids are born, kids who grow up to be the hard-core criminals.

Because the parents' lives are so bleak and tumultuous, there is little encouragement at home for kids to value learning in school or the opportunities that education brings. In the poor urban schools where future criminal defendants walk the halls, the students don't fear or respect the teachers, and the teacher is liable to be assaulted, insulted or ridiculed at any time with few consequences for the students. The student population is made up of lot of sullen teens whose parents are living marginal, minimum wage existences and can't provide any form of moral guidance, cultural stimulation, or common sense. Instead, the kids' moral growth is guided by the prognostications of rap artists and sports stars.

It is no surprise that when real accomplishment seems out of reach, kids' dreams will not be sparked by doing their homework, but listening to rappers who extol the virtues of "chasing paper" through drug dealing and robbing.

That's the culture that has to be dealt with. Without reforming the culture in some real way, a criminal justice reform will accomplish nothing.
posted by jayder at 9:52 PM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


My understanding of the way jails operate in the U.S is that they're not really owned by the State, they're owned or managed by private corporations who are paid x amount of dollars per head by the Government for every prisoner they're holding. This is what I was told by one of my University lecturers back when I was studying Government a few years ago, so if this information is wrong, I apologise and let me know.

He said that the fundamental problem with the U.S Justice and prison system is that because these big private companies make their profit on the backs of how many prisoners they're holding, there is almost a sort of collusion between these companies, law enforcement and lawmakers to see more and more people, mainly poor people and minorities, locked up.

The lawmakers start the process. As Mark Twain once said, "No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session" and to people like me, who see how the lawmaking system works, this is really quite true. As one senior politician I know once put it, it seemed that almost every time Cabinet sits, some new law making something illegal got signed off on.

And so, lobbied by these big security companies, American politicians happily create laws that are "tough on crime" because it means the security companies pay them money towards being reelected and their constituents are happy that their elected officials are cracking down on the people who want to steal their HDTV.

For most people who have access to the internet, can afford newspapers or have social circles that can inform them that something is now illegal, this is fine (for the most part). But for many minorities and people from a low socio-economic background in general, these avenues of keeping abreast of the law are not open to them. Or worse still, they simply don't care and in the US, where health care and the social security system are privatised as well, it's easy to see what drives people, particuarly the socially disadvantaged, to crime.

So then the second part of the process kicks in. Law enforcement. I'll avoid any discussion about good cops vs. bad cops here because Metafilter dosen't seem to do that very well. But for the most part, let's accept that most cops do a hard job and do it well. They're not complicit in the plan to get more people arrested and thrown in jail; they simply enforce the law. But when lawmakers are making new laws all the time that making previously legal things illegal, and when people from low socio-economic backgrounds are for a variety of complex and different reasons more prone to committing crimes, it's these very people who tend to get arrested the most. And unable to afford a lawyer or assigned a terrible one by the state, they get thrown in jail...

... where the Government then pays the security company who runs the jail a tidy profit for housing their new prisoner.

None of this excuses criminal behaviour of course, but the problem as I see it in the U.S is that you have a system which has been designed from the top down to do one thing; incarcerate more poor people to ensure that the people at the top of the system, including the righteous Jim Webb, get fat and wealthy on their backs.

In Australia where I live, most state governments run their own prisons; they're not privatised. Which is why we have relatively low incarceration rates when compared to the U.S; we're not looking to lock people up. And unlike the U.S, we have a halfway decent social security system which helps keep crime low, and we have universal health care, which means that even the poorest person sitting on the street can get himself to a hospital if he or she really needs to. This also helps keep crime low.

But look at an example of where Australia did experiment with paying companies to lock people up. When John Howard was our PM, we paid an American company to lock up asylum seekers. It was like America-lite; big security company pays Government to let them do a job, Government makes tougher and tougher laws to lock minorities up, and the big security company gets fat and wealthy out of the process.

In closing, this is where your problem lies. Your problem lies in the fact that you have privatised something that Government should be in charge of alone. And you have no social safety nets, like a decent social security system or a universal health care system, to help prevent people from a low socio-economic background from falling foul of the law.

The justice system in America needs changing, yes. But the problem is far more complex than that and Webb, as well intentioned as he may be, needs to realise that if he has a snowflakes chance in hell of fixing this.
posted by Effigy2000 at 9:57 PM on March 30, 2009 [7 favorites]


I don't have a whole theory worked out, but I have the sense that individualist ideology is not so pervasive in Japan as it is in the U.S., that there is not a massive underclass in Japan that is perpetually behind everyone else, and that there are certain cultural expectations in Japan that do not exist in the U.S.

Well, and as we all know "theorizing" about culture based on stereotypes is the best way to determine come up with policy ideas. Maybe once you've got your "theory" worked out you can run some experiments and see what the results are. Until then, why are you telling people who to run things based on some crackpot theory of culture that even you say is half-baked.

My understanding of the way jails operate in the U.S is that they're not really owned by the State, they're owned or managed by private corporations who are paid x amount of dollars per head by the Government for every prisoner they're holding.

Most prisons are run by the government. There are a few private prisons, but it's not very common. However you do have situations like in California where the prison guard union is actually a very powerful union.
posted by delmoi at 10:07 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Use Occam's Razor to explain the "overwhelming incarceration of so many African Americans."
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:17 PM on March 30, 2009


Well, and as we all know "theorizing" about culture based on stereotypes is the best way to determine come up with policy ideas. Maybe once you've got your "theory" worked out you can run some experiments and see what the results are. Until then, why are you telling people who to run things based on some crackpot theory of culture that even you say is half-baked.

Dude, you're taking this way too personally. I am commenting based on my perception and my understanding, always carefully couched as such, and you're getting needlessly hostile. Chill out.

Focus more on having a discussion, Delmoi, and less on "winning."

Based on your passage which I quoted above, I take it that you basically disapprove of people expressing an opinion or an idea in an internet discussion unless they've, say, fleshed it out in a Ph.D. thesis? Interesting.
posted by jayder at 10:19 PM on March 30, 2009


Add that to the welfare payments to judges, probation officers, prison workers, lawyers, and police who need to enforce various drug laws....and we have a system that has the force of unions to not change. --stirfry

You may have something there. California recently had a proposition on the ballot that would have reduced the number of prisoners and increased the treatment programs. One of the primary political forces against it was the prison workers union. It didn't pass.

I think we are now in a unique position to get bills like this to pass. Prisons are very, very expensive, and our governments are broke and cutting back on all kinds of services right when the unemployment rate is soaring.

If we present this as a simple economic issue--lots of money out of our pockets and the question of survivability of our government vs locking up non-violent pot smokers, maybe we can change people's opinions on this and start getting people angry for the right reasons.
posted by eye of newt at 10:19 PM on March 30, 2009




most of these people need to be locked up. It is actually pretty damned hard to get locked up for any considerable length of time.

Just, wow.

This is the worst, least accurate comment I have ever read on this or any other website. It's probably been covered upthread (I skimmed), but the stories are myriad: public defenders advising their completely innocent clients to plead guilty, because 20 years is better than the life they'd get otherwise for the thing they didn't do.

And trying to link it to bogeymen like "the media" and "images of leisure" in "our society" is just mind-bogglingly, breathtakingly wrong.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:27 PM on March 30, 2009


Effigy2000, these are not the newest statistics but less than a decade old and at that time the percentage of U.S. prisoners in private incarceration was less than 5% (and at that time private prison populations were dropping. I read another article that suggested the private prison industry was basically bailed out in the last decade by being given illegal alien incarceration contracts which is of course a whole other story).

Corrections employees unions and private organizations that service the prison population (i.e. providing materials for incarceration) or are served by it (via access to cheap labor, for example) is another story but again, I really think the desire to attribute the situation to a single issue is misbegotten. As convenient as these narratives are they aren't really capturing an awfully complex situation and they aren't going to lead to real solutions.
posted by nanojath at 10:31 PM on March 30, 2009


jayder: Without reforming the culture in some real way, a criminal justice reform will accomplish nothing.

Okay, but this presumes they are not interdependent factors. Prohibition laws, by directly enriching criminal syndicates, may indirectly aggrandize their ethos. And certainly every outward sign of war being waged on one's community would contribute more directly.

uncanny hengeman: Use Occam's Razor to explain the "overwhelming incarceration of so many African Americans."

Human Rights Watch has already tried their hand, and I'd round out the list to account for charge stacking and plea bargains, underfunded treatment programs, and the hawkish posturings of Charles Rangel, Reagan, et al. I've commented at length on that here.
posted by kid ichorous at 10:37 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Human Rights Watch has already tried their hand, and I'd round out the list to account for charge stacking and plea bargains, underfunded treatment programs, and the hawkish posturings of Charles Rangel, Reagan, et al. I've commented at length on that here.

Sounds complicated. ;)
posted by uncanny hengeman at 10:41 PM on March 30, 2009


On the other hand, if William of Ockham had used his razor to partition metaphorical snuff into clean little rows...
posted by kid ichorous at 10:47 PM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Corrections employees unions and private organizations that service the prison population (i.e. providing materials for incarceration) or are served by it (via access to cheap labor, for example) is another story but again, I really think the desire to attribute the situation to a single issue is misbegotten."

No, but they exist mostly in the south and west, in the states which are usually most strapped for cash and which sometimes fall for bad deregulation schemes. It's not the major issue, but it's an issue. It's also probably an indication that our priorities are getting a bit mixed up that we let that get privatized at all.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:57 PM on March 30, 2009


The reason the U.S. prison population is so large is simple, racism. That is also the reason why the topic will never get a fair hearing from politicians.

In the 70s the whites in the U.S. decided that they couldn't live next to black people, so you have white flight to the suburbs. This lead to less job opportunities and worsening schooling because of a lowered tax base. With fewer economic or educational opportunities, blacks left in the inner cities increasingly turned to crime.

Now seeing as how the whites no longer lived in the inner cities and didn't like the blacks much anyway, (or else they wouldn't have moved out in the first place), they didn't have any interest in investing in schools or infrastructure in the inner city. However they were easily swayed by politicians who used coded or explicit appeals to fear of black male criminals (see Lee Atwater's whole career for many examples of both).

By incarcerating a large proportion of the inner city black male population without building any kind of sustainable communities in there, we set up a feedback loop, where prisoners would go to jail, learn how to become better criminals and then come back to the community as the most visible male role models.

So now you have things like "thug" culture, which are baffling to many white Americans, how can these people glorify criminals? But "thug" culture came out of prison culture. Rules like "no snitching," started as behavior norms for how you survived in jail.

Of course not everyone in jail is a black male, nor do they necessarily have any connection to inner cities. However I would argue that these other prisoners are merely collateral damage of a "get tough on crime" approach that was aimed at black males.

Our current justice system is the result of 40 years of post civil rights structural racism playing itself out. I don't see how anyone could look at the incarceration rates of black men and deny this is the case.
posted by afu at 11:17 PM on March 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


If we lived in a culture what was not saturated with advertisements of consumer bliss, sexual abandon, and inexplicable leisure, I think a lot of our crime problem would go away.

Why we're decadent is what we are! Whores of Babylon! Sodom and Gomorrah!

Sound familiar? You can hear it on the 700 Club or from William Bennett (the compulsive gambler moralist) every night. Same stupid argument.

Only they liven it up by blaming the Gays, too.

Hey why not blame video games?

Does culture matter? You bet. Certainly our individualist approach to society effects our crime rate - as it is reflected in our criminal justice system. But so does the fact we are a large, ethnically diverse, heterogeneous country or conflicting cultural values with much greater wealth disparities than places like Japan. Which are centuries older and much more homogeneous. But every bit as consumerist and even MORE saturated with status motivated materialist advertising and hyper sexual images (what ever difference that makes). And, BTW, Japan has a centuries old many billion dollar ultra-violent criminal class that goes largely unchallenged (until recently) by society at large.

My brother works for Florida corrections. And trust me these guys are not raping and killing to keep up with the Jonses. 99% are incarcerated for crimes directly related to drug offenses. And the US has been dealing with modern drug problems longer than Japan or Europe because of our insane prohibition laws and because of proximity to the production areas (coke and pot) and our larger population of domestic drug consumers.

While I agree that our obsession with cowboy individualism is informing idiotic public policies let's not stretch the idea of the ravenous covetousness and impulsive decadence of American Corporate Capitalism too far. There are places much worse than us in that regard.
posted by tkchrist at 11:17 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't disagree, krinklyfig. To my mind definitely one of the areas where we really want to look hard at where the profit motive does and does not belong. I have also read quite a few things talking about how (surprise surprise) the supposed cost savings of privatization never appeared.

I think a really challenging part of this is going to be that it turns out to be driven by lots of interrelated but discrete factors. No magic bullet for crime and punishment.

Ugh, I'm trapped in a prison... for my MIND. Must unplug.
posted by nanojath at 11:18 PM on March 30, 2009


The reason the U.S. prison population is so large is simple, racism.

No. It's not that simple. Though racism certainly plays an important role. It's just not that simple. Becuase racism effects every nation of this planet. Germans and Japanese or no less Racist than Americans. Their social histories are merely more homogeneous. And by attempting to boil everything down "ism's" we loose sight of an entire complicate lattice work of material social problems. While it's tempting to blame Whitey you are not gonna solve much by doing so.

It's kinda like "The War or Terror." You cannot fight a concept. You can blame it. And? You gotta address what it does case by case. And among all things institutions can do to change there is also a great deal the Back community can (and has begun to do) to address why so many of it's young men are in jail.
posted by tkchrist at 11:34 PM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


As I understand it, and I admit up front that my understanding is that of an outsider to the legal system, but from what I've read and researched, it appears that the really dramatic increase in incarceration rates may be a direct result of the "3 Strikes" laws and mandatory sentencing.

As well, there is a growing trend in privatization of prisons, especially where it concerns juveniles.

Add to that the seizure laws which allow the police to confiscate anything a drug user has ever touched, and you've got some pretty heavy motive to target Suburban Johnny Pothead, and sort of skip tackling the heavily armed gangs who are actually running drugs.

I know someone who was sent to prison for 25 years for having 10 hits of acid. Twenty.Five.Years! How ridiculous is that? As well, his wife and kids were made homeless when the state seized his home, his bank accounts, his cars, all his assets.

This is a criminal system run amok. There was a link recently on MeFi about the police busting the door down and killing the pets of people who they knew weren't dealers because the POLICE are the ones who put the pot on their doorstep.

It's insane, and must be stopped in the name of all that is truly justice.
posted by dejah420 at 11:37 PM on March 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


Yeah. Talk about Blow Back. Three strikes has got to be one of the stupidest ideas since prohibition.
posted by tkchrist at 11:41 PM on March 30, 2009


It's all about the freaking money.

We've allowed our prison and law enforcement to be turned into
for-profit enterprises. Now we're stuck with a giant Shawshank Redemption.

The system has thrown us overboard. It's not about what's right. It's not about justice. It's about giving rich cocksuckers and their cronies more money, more power and more control. Welcome to the oligarchy kids. "It's a big club and you ain't in it".
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 12:17 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Bravo to Jim Webb. Hopefully this will at least--hopefully--begin a serious discussion. It seems one has already begun in terms of marijuana reform, albeit still quite on the fringes.

Also, let me just say that Glenn Greenwald's may be the finest political column around these days. He has fantastic insight.
posted by zardoz at 12:20 AM on March 31, 2009


Katullus: Also, there are some very valid criticisms of the UN's methodology when compiling world-wide crime statistics (in brief it's that the UN relies on the crime rate statistics of member countries which measure things slightly differently) but as far as I know it is the best study there is. More specific crime rate comparisons, e.g. burglary rates, is much more apples-to-apples.

"Measure things slightly differently" is perhaps an understatement. It's much harder to compare crime stats internationally, or even within a country, than you imply. Take assault: in NZ, there's no crime of battery - battery is a subset of assault. So comparing NZ and UK assault rates, you'd get completely skewed figures. Or take a situation where four people attack another: some countries would class that as one assault, some as four. Within countries, police forces come under political pressure to massage figures up, or down. It's easy to choose not to record something.

The most accurate comparison measure is the murder rate (because it's almost always clear that a crime has been committed; because it's a serious crime that will be recorded, etc). From your source: murders per capita has the US well ahead of the UK, and NZ (though only in 24th place overall).
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:49 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dude, you're taking this way too personally. I am commenting based on my perception and my understanding, always carefully couched as such, and you're getting needlessly hostile. Chill out.

Don't be such a baby.

Based on your passage which I quoted above, I take it that you basically disapprove of people expressing an opinion or an idea in an internet discussion unless they've, say, fleshed it out in a Ph.D. thesis? Interesting.

Well, it depends on what the topic is. But in terms of policy, yeah I do think people's ideas and opinions should be based on real research that someone has done. I mean, the alternative is what exactly: ideas that are not supportable by real world data?

We're talking about polices that affect millions of people's lives, literally taking people's freedom away. On other topics, precision is not as important.
posted by delmoi at 1:46 AM on March 31, 2009


"Measure things slightly differently" is perhaps an understatement. It's much harder to compare crime stats internationally, or even within a country, than you imply.

#3 Finland: 101.526 per 1,000 people => 520,194 total crimes in 2002. => 163 634 of them are from speeding (ylinopeus). 31% of all crimes. In 2007, speeding comprised 40% of all crimes.

Comparing to 11,877,218 reported total crimes in US, a number which seems to come from here, where Crime Index is defined thus: Specifically, the Index crimes reported to the FBI are murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

So yeah, international crime stats comparisons are easily misleading.
posted by Free word order! at 2:36 AM on March 31, 2009


In a down economy prison is a growth industry.
posted by caddis at 4:05 AM on March 31, 2009


In the 70s the whites in the U.S. decided that they couldn't live next to black people, so you have white flight to the suburbs. This lead to less job opportunities and worsening schooling because of a lowered tax base. With fewer economic or educational opportunities, blacks left in the inner cities increasingly turned to crime...

Wow, I really hope you don't believe this, because if so, it's one of the most racist things I've read in a while. It comes off as a modern-day White Man's Burden. Did you really mean to imply that without the help of White Folks, Black Folks are unable to maintain peace, educate their children, and otherwise have the civic pride required to keep up a strong community?

If there was nothing more to racism than a voluntary segregation that occurred, we would not have the problems that we currently face today.

No, the truth of the matter is that the policies themselves are racist, and the law enforcement officers that enforce them are further exemplars of racism. Black people are much more likely to be harassed by LEOs, more likely to be arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for "crimes" that they, as Jim Webb showed, perpetrate with no more frequency than white people. The laws themselves are racist, like mandatory sentencing on crack cocaine that was higher than that for powder cocaine. Use the "black" drug and you're up the creek without a paddle. Use the "white" drug and you're a successful 80s business guy.

One part of your post was true, that today's culture is infected with prison culture, and that youths do not have sufficient role models. Hopefully the Obamas can demonstrate that greatness can be attained regardless of race, that "thug life" is not a path to success. However, to have blamed the current plight and incarceration of black people on the absence of white people rather than the actions of white people seems misguided at best, and patronizingly racist at worst.
posted by explosion at 4:42 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


I actually touched on this on my blog yesterday.

Drug offenders, up 37%, represented the largest source of local jail population growth between 1996 and 2002. More than two-thirds of the growth in inmates held in local jails for drug law violations was due to an increase in persons charged with drug trafficking. New drug policies have especially affected incarceration rates for women, which have increased at nearly double the rate for men since 1980. Nearly 1 in 3 women in prison today are serving sentences for drug-related crimes. In 2000, an estimated 57% of Federal inmates and 21% of State inmates were serving a sentence for a drug offense.

Add to that the "Justice" System's abysmal rate of recitivism and we probably need to rethink how and why we do things

The 1994 recidivism study estimated that within 3 years, 51.8% of prisoners released during the year were back in prison either because of a new crime for which they received another prison sentence, or because of a technical violation of their parole. This rate was not calculated in the 1983 study.
posted by ElvisJesus at 5:10 AM on March 31, 2009


The incarceration rate has a lot to do with the nature of the U.S. as a consumer society. Our country is great at creating consumer appetites for cars, clothes, gadgets, and entertainment, but we are getting very bad at educating people to work jobs that pay enough to afford the things for which people have appetites. When you create ravenous appetites for luxury, on the one hand, while failing to give those very same people the means to satisfy those appetites, crime is often the result: robberies, burglaries, and other forms of theft to be able to afford luxuries one could never earn the means to pay for; drug use to numb the depression that results from living in a society where you are bombarded with images of luxury and consumption that remains out of reach; and drug sales to help people numb themselves in this way.

If we lived in a culture what was not saturated with advertisements of consumer bliss, sexual abandon, and inexplicable leisure, I think a lot of our crime problem would go away. But right now our society creates a vast population with huge cravings and no way to satisfy them, or dull their resulting depression and suffering, short of crime.


As has been noted above, we *don't* have more acquisitive crime than everyone else and we do lock up an awful lot of black people.

That said, the American dream's emphasis on "youre on you're own" rather than "we're in this together" is certainly a driver of misery that could explain why we appear to have the largest appetite for drugs on the planet. While people incarcerated for nonviolent drug crimes don't explain the whole rise in incarceration, that plus the the gang violence and related spread of guns that accompanies repeated removal of the organized, stable drug traffickers creating Darwinian selection for ruthlessness in dealers, can account for virtually all of it.

Someone once wrote that when one's paycheck depends on not seeing the truth, it's very hard to see it (they said it better) and I would argue that we've created a system that makes justice reform nearly impossible. Virtually everyone in the system-- even the good guys-- start to believe that prisoners need to be incarcerated because the alternative is too unbearable to deal with every day.
posted by Maias at 5:48 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, I really hope you don't believe this, because if so, it's one of the most racist things I've read in a while.

Well, look at the history. Before the Civil Rights era, minorities were deliberately, by social and legal forces, kept in lower paying positions and lower class housing. Then, Civil Rights, Race Riots, White Flight.

Do you think they left the jobs and capital behind when they went to the suburbs? The cities that held onto substantial white populations had another reaction -- you put your kids into parochial and private schools, and then you fought like hell against putting money into public schools. And note that "white" flight also included well established minority populations. Basically, it really was "flight." -- if you had the money, you left. If you didn't, you didn't. Funny how in the end, it was the blacks and hispanics left in the cities. Wonder how that happened?

So, now you have cities with large minority populations that are cutting services and cutting education, because the tax base left. Falling population means less property demand, means less property tax income, means less services, means more people move to the suburbs, if they can afford to, means falling population, means....

Those who can't go get substandard education, medical care, etc.

Then you get the crime, and the reaction to it. When you're looking at a life that's going to be short and criminal, you develop a not-exactly-society based culture. In politics, you get systemic corruption. It's not as harmful to have someone skimming a few percent off the top when the system's flush, but when the city is seriously low on capital, the guy who's making sure his neighborhood has perfect streets while the entire west side of the city rots is doing far more harm.

The damage that this whole cycle has caused has been tremendous. Socially, the prison network, and rather than solving racism, we've buried it to crop up as a festering wound. The GOP leveraged this using "don't let Those People take your money" to dismantle vast parts of the social support and infrastructure of this country, and we're all paying for it now.

So, now we have a nation that want to imprison everyone who's done everything wrong, wants perfect roads everywhere, and wants to be able to fight *two* wars at a time, but FUCK YOU if you raise my taxes.

You know, you're right. It's not racism.

It's racism and greed.
posted by eriko at 6:00 AM on March 31, 2009 [5 favorites]


Go Jim! The man's doing a good thing, and apparently from a place of personal conviction. Respect.
posted by bepe at 6:20 AM on March 31, 2009


This issue was debated on Cato Unbound this month:

A Nation of Jailers by Glenn Loury
Reforms that Ignore the Black Victims of Crime by John R. Lott, Jr.
Addressing the Problems that Lead to Prison by James Q. Wilson
Race, Crime, and Punishment by Bruce Western

The rest of the conversation is over on the side-bar.
posted by dgaicun at 6:53 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yay Jim! And listen, I know it's convenient and fun to bash the US right down to its acquisitive soul, but this bullshit about how people are doing all these robberies and murders in order to buy iPods? Come on now. HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO A MAJOR AMERICAN CITY YOU FUCKING RETARDS???

It's about the POVERTY, stupid. YOU want an iPod, that doesn't mean that everyone who knocks over a convenience store is doing it for an iPod. People rob people to get money to buy drugs. Not every robbery has this motive, but a large percentage of them do. Why do they want these drugs so badly? Because their lives have become hopeless– that's what poverty does to a person, to a family, to a city, and to a country.

And let's forget about the robberies for a minute–how many people are in prison on drug charges– just drugs, no B&E, no robbery, no assault, just, let's say, possession with intent to distribute. In many "three strikes" jurisdictions, that's strike #1. Now, let's say you flee from the police–depending on how you flee, and what happens when the cops catch up with you, you may be charged with a second felony– you're already at two strikes. See where this is going? It's really easy to pile up three strikes in some states. It's really hard to get a job that pays a living wage if you have felony convictions. For people with few options, it's really hard to stay out of the system once you are in it.
posted by Mister_A at 6:54 AM on March 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


As Mark Twain once said, "No man's life, liberty, or property is safe while the legislature is in session"

Not Twain.

Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog.
- Mark Twain, Speech, 11/23/1900


Much to my surprise this is roughly accurate. The actual quote is:

"There was a proposition in a township there to discontinue public schools because they were too expensive. An old farmer spoke up and said if they stopped the schools they would not save anything, because every time a school was closed a jail had to be built. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. He'll never get fat. I believe it is better to support schools than jails."
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:55 AM on March 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


I was a criminal defense lawyer on the appellate level in Dallas Co., Texas, for 20 years or so. I did court appointed felony appeals. Our criminal justice system is the place where the remaining racism in our society stands out most starkly. It used to be so bad in Dallas Co., that by the time I closed my practice (I had to care for my mother as she was dying - there was no one else) I was putting a standard paragraph in every brief in every appeal in which my client was African American about the racism inherent in the system. I couldn't take it anymore.

I have to say that's changed - we have the first African American DA in Dallas history, Craig Watkins, and he's just phenomenal. He appointed staff to go through old case files and find cases where DNA evidence could have made a difference. As of this writing, 6 people have been released from prison in Texas who were wrongly convicted. Watkins is someone to watch.

I am so damn grateful to Webb for raising this issue because it has desperately needed to be examined. Our criminal justice system stinks - all over the country. Our prison system is hardly any better than Gitmo in a lot of jurisdictions.

One thing that has fueled this is the ongoing Culture of Victimhood. This bled into our justice system early on (through MADD, I'm sorry to say) and has turned the entire thing into a vengeance machine. The constitution says absolutely nothing about Victims' Rights - because victims are represented by the power of the state. The constitution speaks to the rights of the accused and there is no place in a system that is supposedly ruled by law for these Victims' Statements in court and all of this emphasis on Victimhood. It goes right beyond the victims to the accused who then claim they are victims. And on it goes while our prison system rots to a state that is barely civilized.

We lock up psychotics, knowingly. A lot of them are instantly thrown into complete psychotic breaks and never come back. We're making everything worse for our society. We have got to change the criminal justice system - all of it.

Privatizing our prisons was one of the worst mistakes we ever made, too. Those contractors need population to get paid so we keep obliging. And the abuses are everywhere in the private prison system, just like the state systems.
posted by Tena at 8:25 AM on March 31, 2009 [21 favorites]


I also agree with everyone who says that the drug war is lost and stupid and needs to go away. We don't need any steenking Drug Czar - we need rational laws. We need to legalize marijuana, period.

The government really should have learned via Prohibition, that it cannot save individual citizens from going to hell in their own way. Has drug use gone down since they declared war? We all know it hasn't. We all know - or we damn well should by now - that the "experts" who keep claiming marijuana is addictive and dangerous are lying.

Personal experience tells me that they are lying - over 30 years' worth, now. And not just me and one or two people I know, either - large numbers.

On the other hand, as a criminal defense lawyer, I've seen firsthand what booze can and does do to society - of the thousand or so people I represented, not but about 4 were sober when they committed the crime. Most had been drinking for days. Not one was just high on marijuana. No one gets high on pot and commits much of anything other than noshing. You don't get aggressive and aggressively stupid on marijuana. You do on booze.

And going after marijuana has fueled the goddam increase in truly dangerous drug abuse - like meth, which is cheap and easy to get ahold of whereas the government makes getting ahold of marijuana harder and more expensive. So kids buy the cheap shit that has more bang for the buck and that is just insane!

I'm not anti-booze - but I wish the government would get real.
posted by Tena at 8:44 AM on March 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


Heard the interview yesterday. Jim Webb is one of the first Senators I've voted for that I actually believed in voting for. Thank got for Jim Allen and macaca. Webb is articulate (he's written 9 books!) and it was so nice seeing conservative Virginia elect him in 06.
posted by daHIFI at 8:45 AM on March 31, 2009




I think yall got this under control.

posted by Xoebe at 8:50 AM on March 31, 2009


"most of these people need to be locked up. It is actually pretty damned hard to get locked up for any considerable length of time.

Just, wow."

I have to say, it's hard to top "just, wow," as a response to that totally weird and dead wrong comment.
posted by Tena at 9:35 AM on March 31, 2009


Thanks to lunit, Tena, and others who know what they're talking about for posting.
posted by everichon at 9:36 AM on March 31, 2009


Hopefully the Obamas can demonstrate that greatness can be attained regardless of race, that "thug life" is not a path to success.

Doubtful.

Besides the money (The President of the United States earns $400,000 a year, Fifty cent makes how much?) you're talking about people making a wholesale rejection of and break with their current culture. Good or bad that's not something many people are capable of doing on their own. Especially when the reality of things like healthy meals and safe homes aren't a given.

Fixing the barriers to another path is well within our power, but won't happen now, where our society and the media feel bad about taking from the rich and giving to the poor.
posted by anti social order at 9:41 AM on March 31, 2009


Hopefully the Obamas can demonstrate that greatness can be attained regardless of race, that "thug life" is not a path to success.

Doubtful.


You'd be wrong about that. There have been studies that showed black kids scholastic standardized testing actually improved markedly, not merely fractionally, but by leaps, immediately after Obama's election. Hope. Inspiration. Real role models. That stuff does make a serious difference. When people believe there is an actual future for them they rise to higher expectations. Every god damned time.
posted by tkchrist at 10:00 AM on March 31, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'd like to see those studies.

(No, really, I'm curious.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:03 PM on March 31, 2009


Wow, people just love to simplify, huh? I see a bunch of comments "It's all about racism" , "it's all about culture", "it's all about money", etc.... none of those statements are true. It's because of a hundred factors over the history of the US.

Now, there are certainly some big components that need addressing. But it's not "all about" any one thing.
posted by wildcrdj at 5:35 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


I believe the children are our are future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside, give them a sense of pride to make it easier.

I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone's shadows. If I fail, if I succeed, at least I live as I believe. No matter what they take from me they can't take away my dignity.

Because the greatest love of all is happening to me. I found the greatest love of all inside of me. The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself: it is the greatest love of all.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 6:29 PM on March 31, 2009




"I think a really challenging part of this is going to be that it turns out to be driven by lots of interrelated but discrete factors. No magic bullet for crime and punishment."

That's true. But I don't think it's terribly complicated to start making improvements. Ultimately, the issue of crime and punishment has to be undertaken as a humanitarian mission for it to succeed. It seems plain to me that a criminal justice system has to exist to benefit the citizens which live with it, or it is a wasted effort and causes more damage itself. We are hovering in the area where the criminal justice system looms and lords over us and considers humanity to be dispensable, where it becomes a machine rather than a support system. If the goal is to simply make us safer, it's failing. And if the goal is to benefit society, it's failing badly.

And if you posted my words around the web, I'm sure a lot of people would find them hysterical and terribly naive. But we have evidence in front of us how to do it better. The problems and solutions aren't great mysteries, though surely we have a lot to learn yet. We've just chosen to ignore the evidence and do "what feels right." Because that's what our politicians have been giving to us for a long time now, and it works a hell of a lot of the time.

Well, we all like a bit of sweet vengeance. But it's no way to deal with the problem. It's no way to operate a government, or to treat the people who have to suffer the consequences, selling them visions of a safe society where we lock up all the bad guys and let the profit motive drive criminal justice policy, because the market is so magic it can find the most efficient way to do anything! As long as one of your goals isn't something wishy-washy like a sense of shared sacrifice, a sense that we must take care of each other when it counts, and that means finding help for a violent schizophrenic person rather than locking them up for crimes we did nothing to prevent. It means we don't let poverty drive the choices of young people living in the United States. And it means we don't churn out an ever-growing class of ex-cons who cannot participate in the most fundamental aspects of participatory government, that we don't forever disenfranchise entire groups of people and feed on the problem that got them there in the first place. That we need to provide better choices, and a better foundation. We will always have criminals, we always have. But the criminals we all fear are found among us, if we encourage it. And that's what we've been doing for far too long, and we're lying to ourselves if we think this can continue. Because we've run out of money to pay for it. The prison underclass requires lots of funding to keep it growing.

As others have mentioned, when the money runs out, then throwing lots of cash at prisons while encouraging the growth of a criminal underclass is not such an easy sell. It's easier to distract people when there's lots of money to throw around, whether it does any good or not. We now need our money to do useful things, and we may find our way out of this through being forced to make difficult choices. Nothing forces those kinds of choices like running out of scratch. It's the prisoner's dilemma, and we're all in it together.
posted by krinklyfig at 7:53 PM on March 31, 2009


jayder: Dude, you're taking this way too personally. I am commenting based on my perception and my understanding, always carefully couched as such, and you're getting needlessly hostile. Chill out.

delmoi: Don't be such a baby.

Someone says something you disagree with, you have a shit-fit, and I'm the baby? A bit topsy-turvy, I think.
posted by jayder at 11:43 PM on March 31, 2009


delmoi wrote: Most prisons are run by the government. There are a few private prisons, but it's not very common. However you do have situations like in California where the prison guard union is actually a very powerful union.

While it's certainly inaccurate to state that all or even most US prisons are privately owned, it's not much more accurate to call it not very common.
posted by wierdo at 11:46 PM on March 31, 2009


I have to say, it's hard to top "just, wow," as a response to that totally weird and dead wrong comment.

It is an urban legend that people are locked up for extended lengths of time for trivial offenses. Nobody here seems to have any proof to the contrary.
posted by jayder at 11:49 PM on March 31, 2009


tkchrist wrote: Three strikes has got to be one of the stupidest ideas since prohibition.

It wouldn't be so stupid if lawmakers weren't busy making nearly every crime a felony so they can appear 'tough on crime' in their re-election campaign.
posted by wierdo at 11:53 PM on March 31, 2009


jayder wrote:
It is an urban legend that people are locked up for extended lengths of time for trivial offenses. Nobody here seems to have any proof to the contrary.


Does three years for vandalism qualify?

How about 5 years for possession of drugs?

Or 10 years for burgling a business?

Worse is how it's basically impossible to better yourself after being convicted of a felony. No federal financial aid for school, most employers won't employ you, and on and on. It's a system that seems designed to keep people in it.
posted by wierdo at 12:02 AM on April 1, 2009


"It is an urban legend that people are locked up for extended lengths of time for trivial offenses. Nobody here seems to have any proof to the contrary."

There was a line in an NPR report this morning that said that there is a judge in CA that routinely sends people back to jail for 10 year sentences for having missed a meeting with their parole officer.
posted by Irontom at 8:13 AM on April 1, 2009


Wow, I really hope you don't believe this, because if so, it's one of the most racist things I've read in a while. It comes off as a modern-day White Man's Burden. Did you really mean to imply that without the help of White Folks, Black Folks are unable to maintain peace, educate their children, and otherwise have the civic pride required to keep up a strong community?

Exactly. Favourited four times, too.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:08 PM on April 1, 2009


I'd like to see those studies.

Simlar to the studies by Claude Steele at Stanford. Look up the Obama Effect.

And also the radiolab episode.

Not that this study and others like it are the end all be all. But it makes sense. Of course how would one replicate the study? Elect another Black president?

Anyway thinking that inspiration of role models doesn't matter very much? Well. You know that's just not true.
posted by tkchrist at 1:35 PM on April 2, 2009


Wow, I really hope you don't believe this, because if so, it's one of the most racist things I've read in a while. It comes off as a modern-day White Man's Burden. Did you really mean to imply that without the help of White Folks, Black Folks are unable to maintain peace, educate their children, and otherwise have the civic pride required to keep up a strong community?


Christ what a backwards reading of history. Whites denied economic opportunity, education and the right to vote to black people for hundreds of years, then ghettoized them into the inner cities while whites (and all the money and economic opportunities) moved out to the suburbs, and you're saying it's racist to point out that it puts blacks at a distinct disadvantage?

We left a generation of black people with little hope for the future, and then flooded their neighborhoods with drugs and guns and imprisoned a generation of young black man, leaving children to be raised by single moms.

I'll just note that as successful as Barack Obama was, he didn't come out of the inner city. He was from the suburbs, and raised by a successful white family, with all the economic and social advantages that brings.
posted by empath at 2:16 PM on April 2, 2009


"Not that this study and others like it are the end all be all. But it makes sense. Of course how would one replicate the study? Elect another Black president?"

Yes, we can!
posted by klangklangston at 3:44 PM on April 2, 2009


He was from the suburbs, and raised by a successful white family, with all the economic and social advantages that brings.

Suburbs? Of what? Jakarta? Honolulu?

From six to ten he lived in Indonesia, his mother remarried an Indonesian and has always had mixed race parents. Sure, he was then later raised in Hawaii by his white grandparents. The advantages of having white grandparents there would be negligible. Other than the fact they were middle class. Before that though he lived in third world conditions.

After Hawaii he went to college in Los Angeles.

Where did this "suburbs" nonesense come from.
posted by tkchrist at 10:17 AM on April 3, 2009


Why We Must Fix Our Prisons: an article in Parade magazine written by Jim Webb.
posted by lunit at 8:01 AM on April 10, 2009


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