The New York Times editorial applauds the incipient “smart on crime” solutions that are starting to undo the damage of decades of “tough on crime” politics.
The mandatory sentencing movement that swept the United States beginning in the 1970s drove the state prison population up from less than 200,000 to about 1.4 million today and made corrections the second-fastest-growing state expense after Medicaid. But bipartisan sentencing reforms in a growing number of states are starting to reverse that trend — causing the prison population to decline by about 3.8 percent since 2009.
It credits empirical analysis as a better means of determining recidivism:
Underlying the state reforms is a relatively new and more sophisticated way of using data about the offender — including criminal history, drug abuse and instances of antisocial behavior — to assess the likelihood of that individual’s committing a new crime. And by examining arrest, sentencing and probation data, the states can revise policies that might be driving people back into prison unnecessarily.
If it makes them feel better to believe such nonsense, so be it. Neither the perpetual increase in severity of sentencing, nor the start of its lessening in the face of the cost of decades of unproductive penal policy have anything to do with empiricism.
Sure, there are scholars trying to fit numbers to data, but nobody pays any real attention to them. Nobody ever did. It was always appeals to emotion and empty rhetoric, and that’s all it is now. To the extent a study exists that bolsters whatever the politicians think will serve their purposes, they trot it out. If a study goes the other way, it’s ignored or discredited. Studies are used to support what people have already decided to do; they don’t direct policy. They are trailing justifications.
But this leaves an open question of what happens after the big policy question is answered: So if we don’t want to lock every person convicted of a crime up for ever and ever because it costs a friggin’ fortune, what happens to them when we cut them loose?
Some states are also embracing what is known as the “justice reinvestment” approach, under which they channel significant sums of money into improved parole or probation services while beefing up the drug treatment and mental health services that many ex-offenders need to stay out of trouble.
Whenever someone comes up with a cool phrase like “justice reinvestment,” it’s a red flag that they’ve locked onto a bad idea. Good ideas don’t need cool names. Good ideas don’t need to be “branded” for sale to the public.
The government assumption is that the secret to success for convicted criminals is to create the next gen government bureaucracy. There’s a union president somewhere smiling. It’s not that drug treatment and mental health services aren’t sorely needed, though they are needed for plenty of folks, not just paroled prisoners, and their efficacy is almost invariably overlooked when doling out government funding.
But the government still has a headlock on its own importance in fixing the problem, as if more parole officers asking the same questions of the same parolees four times a month is better than twice a month and make all the problems of recidivism disappear.
Nowhere in the editorial is it mentioned that the back half of the apparatus designed to destroy the lives of people convicted of crimes remains intact. Sex offender registries for heinous teens who engage in public urination aren’t disappearing. In fact, our love of registries is growing, as localities invent new registries to taint people.
The collateral consequences of a conviction, from immigration to housing to education to employment, make a successful return to society after a vacation on the state’s dime nothing short of a miracle. While everybody was busy hating on criminals, nobody was advocating for the position that their return to a productive, successful, law-abiding life depended on our willingness to take them back. Well, maybe a few of us were, but nobody who had the power to do much.
They argued that criminals could not be rehabilitated, and that it was some liberal scheme to suck money out of military spending to waste it on human detritus. And because the first 100 years in prison wasn’t harsh enough to sate our need for retribution, we had to make sure they could never come anywhere near us if they ever walked out of prison, so they were banned from employment, housing, education and any possibility of a normal life.
While concerns over the cost of the prison-industrial complex have given rise to politicians seizing upon academic studies suggesting that every idea they had over the past few generations was dead-on wrong, there remains no hue and cry to alter the collateral consequences that don’t have a direct government cost. See what I mean about how nobody really cares about theory, but just where the money flows?
There used to be a notion that a prison sentence was a debt owed to society for violating its laws. When the sentence was served, the debt was paid. The machinations developed to protect us in perpetuity from criminals have eviscerated this concept; no one ever stops being a criminal once he’s been convicted, and we refuse to take the chance of letting him go anywhere near “good people.”
While the support systems for released prisoners are needed, they are worthless if a person can’t get a job, can’t find a home, can’t get a chance to rejoin society free of the stigma of crime. But there’s no money to be had by giving them a chance, so nobody, including the Times, takes notice or thinks its worthy of our concern. The truth is, after a couple generations of being taught to hate and fear, we refuse to accept that the debt is paid.
The best means of ending the cycle of crime is to give people opportunity. Until they have a chance to live normal lives, until we end the schemes designed to make their return to society impossible, they will have no options except a return to crime.