Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Crime Doesn't Add Up

November's ballot in California offers up Proposition 47, which will reduce some felonies--personal drug use and property crimes under $950--to misdemeanors, thus lowering the state's incarceration rate. For a long time I've felt we should review certain crimes and decide if prison is the proper solution, so this Prop seems to be a move in the right direction.

This article about it in The New York Times, though, is not. It's by Erik Eckholm and it starts:

Twenty years ago, amid a national panic over crime, California voters adopted the country’s most stringent three-strikes law, sentencing repeat felons to 25 years to life, even if the third offense was a minor theft.

Eckholm is trying to set up the idea that the three-strikes laws were passed by a fearful, unthinking public. I can remember 1994 reasonably well but I can't quite recall the national panic over crime.  Yes, there's always serious concern over crime--it's a perennial, like education and the economy.  But in 1994, I recall lots of talk about taxes, health care, term limits and plenty of other issues, but not an especially heavy emphasis on crime. I tried to find old polling but all I could get was this Gallup poll about how safe people felt, and 1994 comes across as an average year, not an especially panicky one.

And I do remember panics.  A few years earlier there had been a panic over the threat of drugs, but that was when Bush was President. (Is Eckholm referring to some after-effect?) And there'd also been a panic over ritual child abuse that sent a lot of innocent people to prison.  But if Erick has evidence of a national panic over crime in 1994, I wish he'd at least have linked to some evidence, rather than just state it as fact.

It's true that crime was considerably higher then than now--in fact, it's almost miraculous how much crime rates have come down in the past twenty years. But that's the problem. This leads to an obvious argument--the laws worked.  Maybe that's right, maybe that's wrong, but if you accept this explanation, then the argument that crime rates are down so it's time to put the prisoners back out on the streets doesn't fly.

Unfortunately, the Newspaper Of Record barely mentions any anti arguments.  The piece gives plenty of space to proponents of 47 but merely notes its opponents think it's a bad idea.

Thus you get

“This is a model that doesn’t work,” [a major supporter] said in an interview. “For the $62,000 cost of a year in prison, you can send three kids to college,” he said. “But for me, it’s not just about the money, it’s about our fellow citizens who are hurting.”

Okay, it's an argument we've been hearing for a long time, but it still has some power.  The problem is where's s the quote from the opposite side (which we've also been hearing for a long time, so I know someone's still out there making it).  It would go something like this: "You say $62,000 a year is expensive, but what's really expensive is putting criminals back on the streets.  They'll steal more than enough to make it worth our while to incarcerate them, especially if you throw in extra security costs and property damage.  And then there's piece of mind--how much is that worth to you?  On top of that, don't forget a lot of people who have committed three felonies are quite violent.  If keeping them in jail saves just one life, wouldn't that make you stop and think; but, in fact, our tough laws have saved (by my advocacy group's calculation) over a thousand lives so far, and you want to reverse this?  And by the way, you're worried about people who are hurting? So am I.  They're called crime victims."

Was Eckholm truly unable to find someone who'd say this, or was he just not interested?


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