Taking a Pig and calling it a Princess:American Justice and The Economist

Crime in America.Net

The Economist is on a tear; it published endless examples in a series of articles of people going to prison for trafficking flowers or lobster tails and every conceivable innocuous act known to mankind.  Use the search engine of your choice and combine “Economist” with prisons or crime. Most views will require a subscription.

The bottom-line of the series is that America incarcerates too many people for too many crimes.

“It seems odd that a country that rejoices in limiting the power of the state should give so many draconian powers to its government, yet for the past 40 years American lawmakers have generally regarded selling to voters the idea of locking up fewer people as political suicide. An era of budgetary constraint, however, is as good a time as any to try. Sooner or later American voters will realise that their incarceration policies are unjust and inefficient; politicians who point that out to them now may, in the end, get some credit.”  See http://www.economist.com/node/16640389.

They trot out the usual criminologists who favor less incarceration and sneer at those who favor confinement. Their claim is, as always, that incarceration does little to nothing to hold down rates of crime.

In many ways the Economist is correct, we probably do incarcerate too many people. And regardless as to who is right the states have made it clear that they cannot afford the current levels of incapacitation. Whether they say it publically or not, Governors know that their budgets are in a jam because of prisons.

There are portions of the prison population that probably can be released to community supervision without greatly harming public safety. Older and women offenders have considerably lower rates of recidivism and if given programs and accountability, large numbers (obviously not all) of both categories could probably be safely released.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

The Economist and the usual batch of anti-prison criminologists paint a picture of a precise, well-oiled criminal justice system that is ruthless in the pursuit of everyone for every reason. This well-funded system of forensic investigators and prosecutors plow through the lives of the marginally involved and stick them in prison for the next 100 years without parole.

Please tell us where this system of rough justice can be found?

Most crimes are not reported and most reported crime does not end up with an arrest. In many cities, the system is near the breaking point because of endless budget cuts that result in large numbers of arrestees not prosecuted and in some jurisdictions; the great majority of violent criminals are not indicted.

Note that 94 percent of all criminal cases are plea-bargained with the most serious charges routinely tossed aside to gain convictions

Beyond prosecution, most felony defendants do not get prison time in the United States. It takes multiple felony convictions to get someone placed in prison today. 

Where is this well-oiled machine the Economist speaks of? Within criminal justice circles, we greatly fear the results of a decade’s worth of budget cuts and the near devastation of the system of justice. All of this is well documented in Crime in America.Net, see http://crimeinamerica.net/category/budgetimpact/.

As to the impact of incarceration on crime rates, “In his book Why Crime Rates Fell, Tufts University sociologist John Conklin concluded that up to half of the improvement was due to a single factor: more people in prison (emphasis added). The U.S. prison population grew by more than half a million during the 1990s and continued to grow, although more slowly, in the next decade. Go back half a century: as sentencing became more lenient in the 1960s and ’70s, the crime rate started to rise. When lawmakers responded to the crime wave by building prisons and mandating tough sentences, the number of prisoners increased and the number of crimes fell.” See http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1963761,00.html.

So the bottom line is that many of us “do” support the lessening of prison populations and we “do” support programs for offenders in and out of prison and we “do” recognize the negative fiscal impact of incarceration on the states.

What we don’t like are the endless horror stories that make the crippled criminal justice system out to be what it’s not. The American system of justice is reeling from endless budget cuts and lay-offs of police officers and other criminal justice workers.  And too many people who “do” belong in prison aren’t because the hobbled system lets them fall through the cracks.

So if the Economist and others want a changed justice landscape; taking a pig and calling it a princess will not get you there. A little honesty and context might get you the support of people within the system and mainstream media. Painting an inaccurate picture will just foster hostility and resistance.

If you want to see a responsible discussion of incarceration and differing opinions, see Governing Magazine at http://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/courts-corrections/mississippi-correction-reform.html.

Yes, you can be pro-incarceration yet cut the prison population.

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