In merely the latest of an endless series of proclamations that we must do something to get our prison population in line with other countries’, Republican Senator Arlen Specter and Democratic Senator Jim Webb have teamed up to create a blue-ribbon panel to rehash the usual themes: reducing levels of drug criminalization, freeing the mentally ill from jails, exploring alternatives to sentencing, and enhancing prisoner re-entry services.  Their goal is to reduce the prevalence of prosecutions so that our incarceration statistics come to resemble statistics in European nations.  Of course, crime, especially violent crime, is vastly more prevalent here; thus, higher rates of incarceration.  But that subject is verboten.  Efforts to avoid acknowledging crime in a discussion about responses to crime lead to convoluted statements like the following:

We are doing something drastically wrong,” said Webb, whose plan also aims to improve the US response to armed gangs, especially drug-related groups, as it seeks to bring the prison population down from about 2.4 million people.

And this, directly from the normally straight-shooting Senator Webb:

“We are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life, and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail,” said Webb.

So, we are going to bring down the prison population but improve the response to armed gangs?  Let more people out of jail but protect our citizens from violence?  Look at the prior records of people in Georgia who were identified as rapists after DNA sampling became the law.  Mostly, they had prior records for burglary and drug charges, not violent crimes.  If we had not been enforcing the law for these crimes (as many are proposing now), and sending these men to prison (not community control, where they would not be tested), then scores of rapes would have gone unsolved.   

Is it really true that we have the wrong people behind bars and not enough of the right people there? Or is the truth more simple (albeit troubling): could we actually need to put more people behind bars to ensure public safety, European incarceration statistics notwithstanding? 

I agree with one stated goal of the commission: I’m all for improving services to the mentally ill.  But prisons don’t cause substandard mental health care; they are merely one of the two institutions of last resort (the other being homeless shelters) that deal with the chronically mentally ill in the absence of long-term inpatient treatment.  The prison system has served this thankless role since the 1970’s, when inpatient facilities were shuttered as a result of civil rights lawsuits.  Ever since, people who cannot or will not take care of themselves have been “free” to make their way on the streets, for better or worse.

No amount of fiddling with the criminal justice system will change this fact.  Nor will activists permit a return to institutionalization, no matter how enlightened and humane.  Taking so much as one homeless schizophrenic off the streets and placing her in an institution, even if she is assaulting passers-by and in constant danger of victimization herself, will only result in an endless series of expensive (and taxpayer-subsidized) lawsuits to restore her to her previous condition, no matter how imperiled and degraded.

Activist lawyers know they can sue to de-fund any effort to move homeless people from jails or the streets to other institutions.  And so we will be left with dockets jammed with lawsuits and a billion-dollar prosecution and indigent defense bill, and nothing else will change, except that we will be that much more unable to fund the prosecution of predators and felons.

This is, of course, the real aim of the anti-incarceration crowd.  Depleting criminal justice resources, either through endless appeals or endless lawsuits, has been more effective at freeing higher percentages of criminals than any other strategy.  If you don’t have the money to pay prosecutors, you can’t prosecute crimes.  If you furlough police, they don’t have time to show up in court to testify.  If defense attorneys don’t get paid, trials can’t proceed. Courts from Oregon to Jacksonville have been forced to suspend prosecutions because their budgets are depleted.  Once the courts are in a financial crisis, the pressure to shed lower-level prosecutions grows into mass abandonment of most prosecutions.  

Every day, thousands of citizens are already denied justice for victimizations large and small because we have already severely rationed their access to the justice system.  Their stolen car, or lawn-mower, or television set will not be taken seriously because nobody has the time or money to take it seriously.  If you live in Oregon, that guy rooting around in your garage, or assaulting a security guard, isn’t even facing jail time anymore:

In Lane County, the number of prosecutors has dropped from 28 to 23 in less than a decade, according to Chief Deputy Patty Perlow. That means the district attorney’s office funnels hundreds of defendants accused of nonviolent crimes — such as forgery, criminal trespass and theft of goods worth less than $750 — into a program that fast-tracks their cases. If defendants agree to pay restitution and take a correspondence course about the impact of their bad behavior, their charges will be dismissed.

Perlow was exasperated last year after winning a felony conviction against a man who stole shoes from the University of Oregon bookstore, then injured a security officer by slamming him against a wall. The judge sentenced the man to a year in the Lane County jail, but because of budget cuts, there wasn’t room for him. The man served less than a day.

“It was embarrassing,” Perlow said. “It was a waste of everyone’s time.”

And yet, in the press, this reality barely registers, because it flies in the face of the preferred media storyline: 

America incarcerates more people than (Iran, China, Germany, South Africa).  See how this article on the Webb/Specter task force summarizes such comparisons, in lieu of a discussion of the reality of crime in America:

More than one percent of adults in the United States sit behind bars. . .

By comparison, China, with a population of one billion people, was second in the world with 1.5 million inmates, followed by Russia with 890,000 people in the slammer, the study said.

America’s incarceration rate exceeds that of nations like South Africa and Iran.

By comparison, 93 people in Germany are in prison for every 100,000 people, including minors, the Washington-based independent research group said. The rate is about eight time higher in the United States: 750 per 100,000.

Therefore, such stories go, incarceration in America is illegitimate. 

What is left out of this story, of course, is the relative prevalence of crime in America.  I defer to a reader:

I used to live in Slovenia, which has a crime rate approaching zero. Believe me, to live without real fear of crime is an incredibly liberating feeling. Conversely, when I lived in Brooklyn, I did actually have to live every minute looking over my shoulder, a way of living that is really draining.                                                                                                                                                                                                              -Mark Nuckols

The following, simple fact seems beyond the comprehension of nearly every daily newspaper in the United States:

We have more people in prison because we have more criminals committing crime here.

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