Monday, August 17, 2015

Violent Crime--and Reducing The Prison Population As An End In Itself

   To a layperson, this is a bizarre article.
   I'm often puzzled by those who write as if reducing the prison population is an end in itself. I seems obvious that the war on drugs is based on a lot of confusions and mistakes. Drug policies should be loosened up as much as possible on libertarian principles that liberals and conservatives generally share--though it seems foolish to think that all drugs, even the most dangerous and addictive, should be legal. I'm all for listening to arguments for reducing sentences on property crimes...though without hearing specifics, I'm not in a position to have any real thoughts. And it should be clear that something has to be done to reduce the brutality of prisons in general--which my friend Peter the Public Defender has described to me as "monster factories"... It seems insane to group non-violent prisoners with violent ones. often comes across articles that speak as if we should be reducing prison populations simpliciter, and without regard for alternatives, consequences, and questions about the actual actions of prisoners. The article linked above seems to be of that genus. It suggests that we need to consider reducing sentences for violent offenders. Now...if violent offenders are being given sentences that are unreasonably long...e.g. life sentences for extremely minor assaults...then yes, that should be rethought. But without some reason for believing that the sentences are disproportionate to the crimes, the call for shorter sentences for violent criminals--merely in the name of reducing prison populations--seems crazy. It's rather like a call for reducing the number of people being treated for cancer...but by kicking some of them out rather than curing them.
   None of this is to say that it wouldn't be good to have a go at rethinking alternatives to prison... However, one does worry that there's an irrational liberal agenda in the background here. I often see statistics about U.S. incarceration rates cited as if they were in and of themselves conclusive evidence that the system is unjust and irrational. Such statistics seem to me to be prima facie reason to think that something is amiss...however, if the U.S. has more violent crime, then one would expect that it would have more violent criminals in prison. And lowering prison populations, while desirable, is not more important than lowering violent crime rates.
   A recent personal experience has smacked me upside the head with the irrationality of the legal system... So I'm all on board with concerns about innocent people being convicted of crimes. But that isn't the concern in this article.
   At any rate, this is a debate I've merely glanced at in I'm not asserting that there's anything deep in what I'm saying. I'm really just saying: the nature of the debate at the level of op-eds is worrisome. Given the resurgence of a nutty left, and its current influence on American liberalism, I think we've got to keep our eyes on such issues. Liberals have, curiously, often seemed more compassionate toward criminals than victims...except with respect to certain types of crimes. So I'm wondering whether it might help to note that we're talking, inter alia, about shorting sentences for rape and hate crimes merely because we don't like the idea of having so many violent criminals in prison. Oh and, incidentally, murderers, too...
   Obviously I'm worried about convictions of innocent people, and worried about unjust sentences, and worried about putting non-violent criminals with violent ones, and worried about the corporatization of prisons, and all those obviously worrisome things. And it'd be nice to not have to spend so much money on prisons.
   But the view that we need to let violent criminals out of prison merely in order to have fewer people in prison seems utterly nuts.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two points: First, the definition of "violent" used for classifying prisoners as violent or non-violent offenders bears a very loose relationship to the the everyday meaning of the term. Many crimes are classified as violent that do not involve doing direct bodily harm to another person, gun crimes such as possession of an unlicensed firearm, for example. Gang members can be convicted of violent crimes in virtue of their participation in the gang, even if they were just runners. Classification as "violent" has been a useful tool for prosecutors in amplifying sentences (and the threat of long sentences needed to force pleas) and a good source of political points - "Joe Blow convicted over 300 violent offenders in the course of his term!" The definition of "violence", therefore, has become expansive and vague, along with so much else in a system that largely serves prosecutorial discretion. Use violence as a criterion for who should really be in prison with a heaping dose of salt.

Second, while I agree that the goal of reducing prisoner populations in and of itself is not an priori good, given what we know of the world our prisoner population is weirdly high and is a reliable indicator that many people are imprisoned unjustly. Advocating reducing the prisoner population is like tying a goal to any other indicator. There is a risk of turning the number into a fixation, but only at the margins. If this author is still talking as though prisoner populations need to be lower when we have a rate on a par with other, similar, societies, then there is a problem. Until then, such advocacy is a good stand in for for the otherwise amorphous goal of "justice for all".

11:01 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Thanks for this information, A.

That first point is invaluable. It's baffling that I've not seen this mentioned before (so far as I can remember).

I had considered saying something in the vicinity of the second point...I mean, I do think that having a disproportionately high prison populate is prima facie evidence that something's wrong... But we also seem to have a lot more crime. I'm still skeptical, but I'm not immune to the point.

5:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's the US code's definition of "crime of violence":

"The term “crime of violence” means—
(a) an offense that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another, or
(b) any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense."

Clause B, obviously, is the expansive bit. Slate ran a peice on this issue a while ago. Another example they use, which I had forgotten: burglarizing a home while someone is there is a "violent crime", even if you're just a sneak thief. The article also points out the other side of the issue: that many of the prisoners in for non-violent offenses did harm people, but were able to plead out to lesser charges.

1:35 PM  

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