Prison Madness

For as long as I’ve been alive, the politics of crime and punishment have been mostly a fight between the left releasing criminals on the middle-class and conservatives trying to stop it. In the 1960’s and 1970’s liberals flung open the cage doors and crime went through the roof. In the 1980’s we started rounding up the crooks and putting them back in their cages. It seemed like the Left learned their lesson in the 1990’s and gave up on the idea of turning murderers loose on the public. That’s not true, of course.

The New York Times is out with an editorial demanding we fling open the cage doors again.

For more than a decade, researchers across multiple disciplines have been issuing reports on the widespread societal and economic damage caused by America’s now-40-year experiment in locking up vast numbers of its citizens. If there is any remaining disagreement about the destructiveness of this experiment, it mirrors the so-called debate over climate change.

In both cases, overwhelming evidence shows a crisis that threatens society as a whole. In both cases, those who study the problem have called for immediate correction.

You would not be faulted for thinking the person who wrote that is a mental patient in an asylum somewhere. If you were not from earth and you read that, you would assume the American government randomly captures and imprisons people for no reason other than sadistic amusement.

Several recent reports provide some of the most comprehensive and compelling proof yet that the United States “has gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits,” and that mass incarceration itself is “a source of injustice.”

This is a very strange bit of rhetoric. Is there some tipping point where it no longer makes sense to incarcerate a murderer or rapist? Has anyone ever argued that the point of prison is to achieve a net benefit to society? That sounds callously materialistic.

That is the central conclusion of a two-year, 444-page study prepared by the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the Justice Department and others. The report highlights many well-known statistics: Since the early 1970s, the nation’s prison population has quadrupled to 2.2 million, making it the world’s biggest. That is five to 10 times the incarceration rate in other democracies.

Maybe we have a lower tolerance for crime than other democracies. Maybe we’re better at catching criminals. Maybe we have more criminals. After all, 13% of our population has crime rates we see in sub-Saharan Africa. Another 15% has crime rates on par with Latin American countries. The rest have crime rates similar to Europe and Asia.

On closer inspection the numbers only get worse. More than half of state prisoners are serving time for nonviolent crimes, and one of every nine, or about 159,000 people, are serving life sentences — nearly a third of them without the possibility of parole.

This is a real concern. There are few reasons to send non-violent criminals away for decades or life. Most of this is drugs and those life sentences are for career drug dealers and gangsters so the numbers are misleading. Still, that’s a legitimate line of inquiry. Instead of falling back on 1960’s liberal twaddle, the Times should have dug into that issue and maybe moved the conversation forward.

The other side of debate is the standard stuff.

We have a lot of people locked up because circumstances demanded it. Quite simply, crime ranked among America’s most pressing political issues between roughly the mid 1950s and mid 1990s. As crime declined—coincident with building more prisons—the problem disappeared from the public imagination.

Demographics had something to do with it too. We should not kid ourselves about this reality. We had a larger cohort of young people at the peak of the crime wave.

Second, contrary to the implications flowing from the NYT, others on the left, and a few on the libertarian right, there are very, very few “innocents” being locked up. Most non-violent offenders have done very bad things.

I often wonder if the people who write these studies know these sorts of facts and choose to conceal them or they are just dumb. I had a family member in the drug game back in the 70’s and 80’s. When he got jammed up, he would take a deal on a minor charge. He once beat a man unconscious over a debt. He pleaded to simple possession as the victim refused to testify.

Third, although a lot of people (me included) would favor a lot more efforts to help both prisoners within jailhouse walls and after they get out, decades of social science have produced few certain ways of doing this. Many programs that sound good – vocational training, in-prison counseling, literacy classes, even most drug treatment – actually show mixed or negative results.

This is obviously true, but it never leads these guys to think past this point. We generally think that humans respond to incentives up to a point and within the confines of biology and culture. What that means is we strive to be good at what our biology and culture value. The two often overlap. We construct rules, both written and unwritten, to guide behavior in directions we collectively think is to our benefit. That’s how human societies work.

Some members of every human group respond in aberrant ways to the menu of incentives. Freeloaders, for example, have been a problem for human settlements since human settlement. Religion is thought to have evolved in response to this fact. Unpredictably violent people have been a feature of human existence since before modern man. Fratricide is not in the Bible for nothin’.

All of the evidence is pointing toward a biological source of crime. Certainly, crimes of opportunity like drugs are a separate class, but violent crime is most likely biological. Habitual theft of various types is most likely biological as well. Recidivism rates amongst career thieves and child molesters are so high that it is impossible not to conclude biology is the source. Some people are just born bad.

The question is what do we do with this unfixable and defective batch of humans? Locking them up is a good start, but letting them out is madness. Throwing the biologically violent in with petty thieves is cruel and senseless. Whatever chance for redemption the thief had going into jail is gone once he bunks up with a rapist or murderer. It seems to me that a sane and decent society looks for alternatives to warehousing the non-salvageable human defects.


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Otis from Montana
Otis from Montana

Lefty complaints about prison population always center around “non-violent offenders,” even though that includes people who sell heroin to school kids (and then often plead down to possession) among many other monsters.

Next time you hear them bemoan the fate of these unlucky pacifists, just say “You make a great point. We need to let Bernie Madoff and all the Enron guys out of prison.”

Turk Sylvester
Turk Sylvester

Put like with like.