Under the guise of news, the nation’s “Paper of Record,” The New York Times, is reporting on controversial efforts to release more offenders early or to not imprison them at all — as if there is no controversy and everybody simply agrees that letting recidivists loose early will save money, not cost money and endanger the public.

In an article titled, “To Cut Costs, States Relax Prison Policies,” the Times uncritically quotes both the Pew Center for the States and the Center for Effective Public Policy — and nobody else.  But these organizations fail to count in their analyses the added costs of crimes committed by offenders who would otherwise be incarcerated at the time they re-offend.

The Times article also endorses the view that prison doesn’t work because parolees continue to commit crimes after they have been released from prison.  It takes a moment to wrap one’s head around this:

The most pervasive cost-saving trend among corrections departments has been to look closely at parole systems, in which it is no longer cost-effective to monitor released inmates, largely because too many violate their terms, often on technicalities, and end up back in prison.

Too many parolees are violating parole, so monitoring parolees is no longer cost-effective.  That’s great. I’m also suspicious when a reporter claims, without attribution, that the parole rules being violated are “often” just “technicalities.”  Says who?  How “often”?  What’s a technicality?  Apparently, anything that doesn’t involve actually being caught in the act of committing another crime.  So, apparently, the act of keeping track of an offender who is likely to offend again is merely a technicality, according to the Times.  But isn’t keeping track of offenders the point of parole?

And then there’s this:

Like other states making such changes, California is led by a governor who long opposed such shifts in prison policies. But Mr. Schwarzenegger, as well as other leaders and lawmakers who are far more conservative, has come around to a view held by advocates of sentencing and prison reform that longer sentences do little to reduce recidivism among certain nonviolent criminals.

Again, the theme: “recidivists re-offend, so why imprison them in the first place?”  Here are some reasons: to prevent them from offending for the six months, or year, or five years during which they cannot re-offend because they are in prison.  Or, to build a record against chronic criminals who might get arrested for a parole violation this week but will be wanted for pimping and rape, or car jacking and burglary next week, so that they gradually go away for longer times.

What is most striking about the Times piece is the utter absence of any recognition that there are profound social costs when the threat of deterrence is shaved down to a nub. There are profound social costs when we say to certain groups of people: the problems we cause by placing repeat offenders back into your community are not our concern.  We’re not going to imprison them the next time they steal your lawnmower or break into your house.  We’re not going to prosecute them when they run through your backyard, fleeing a gun-toting drug dealer they just ripped off a block away.

This is the opposite of the broken-windows theory (close attention to even minor-seeming crimes reduces both crime and the fear of crime).  It will doubtlessly have the opposite effect, as well, even if the Times refuse to report it.

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