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[James Q. Wilson, guest-blogging, June 9, 2008 at 12:01pm] Trackbacks
What Do We Get From Prison?

We are frequently told that America should be ashamed of having sent so many people to prison. We are compared unfavorably to most of Europe. But these complaints rarely ask what benefits flow from prison.

The best scholars have estimated that between 25 and 30 percent of the recent decline in crime rates is the result of imprisonment. A comparison with England is helpful. At one time it imprisoned a higher fraction of offenders than did the US, but in the 1980s it changed by imprisoning fewer people. As a result (I think), the British crime rate soared while ours fell.

Between 1980 and 1985 the American prison population increased by more than half and between 1985 and 1990 it again increased by half. But from 1987 to 1992, the British prison population dropped by about five thousand inmates despite a sharp rise in the crime rate.

These different responses did not happen by accident. Americans, voting for district attorneys, mayors, and governors, chose people who would take crime seriously. In England hardly any of these offices are filled by local election; instead, the Parliament and the Home Office decide on crime policies.

Those decisions included a bill that urged judges not to send offenders to prison unless the crime was very serious, and in determining seriousness the judges were asked to ignore the prior record of the offenders.

In short, American policies were driven by public opinion while British ones were shaped by elite preferences. As a result, victim surveys show that by the late 1990s the British robbery rate was one-quarter higher and the burglary and assault rates twice as high as those in this country.

This raises the interesting question of why elite views should be so different from popular ones. Some possible explanations: Elites can more easily protect themselves from criminal attacks; elites tend to have a therapeutic rather than punitive view of crime; elites in parliamentary regimes are protected against sharp swings in public moods.

There are a lot of criticisms one can make of prisons, but sending offenders there, provided it is done correctly and without abuse, is an eminently democratic strategy: We deprive guilty people of liberty to make innocent people safer.

AntonK (mail):
And elites don't live in inner-cities and other places where crimes tend to occur the most...
6.9.2008 1:15pm
Stacy (mail) (www):
This is meant as constructive criticism - can we get a little more rigor in your constructions? For example, you give a percentage increase in the US prison population, but only a number for the decrease in the UK prison population. Since I don't know what the UK prison population was or is, that doesn't give me any way to compare the two.

You're also a little breezy with the caveat "provided it is done correctly and without abuse" -- while I'm generally a tough-on-crime type, those are certainly more than marginal concerns in the US criminal justice system today. Will you be posting more on that topic in coming days? Thanks, and keep it coming!
6.9.2008 1:20pm
rook:
"The best scholars have estimated that between 25 and 30 percent of the recent decline in crime rates is the result of imprisonment."

I would love a citation.
6.9.2008 1:21pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Recently, it was reported that a senior Brit cop went on television and warned that if an assailant is injured when you resist, you could be in trouble.
In addition to stupid gun laws, the Brit elites have made assaultive crime an extremely low-risk enterprise.
No getting shot.
No getting punched.
No getting smacked with a cricket bad the homeowner has in his bedroom.
No jail time.
And, not having a job, you don't lose it. Not having any money that anybody can identify, you don't lose that. As opposed to the vic who can get jail time, can be fined, can spend time and money on defense.
It's not just jail. It's the entire attitude.
6.9.2008 1:24pm
jgshapiro (mail):
Correlation vs. Causation. Maybe there is proof of causation between more imprisonment and less crime, but I don't see it in this post (nor do I see a link to one).

Nor does the fact that there are more people in prison because of popular vote legitimize the practice as a good idea. Lots of things happen by/as a result of a popular vote that are probably not the best idea long-term, e.g., a combination of low taxes and high spending produces massive deficits that ultimately weaken the economy and the dollar as deficits add up. Elite economists may be opposed to such a combination, but at least it is driven by public opinion!
6.9.2008 1:26pm
ejo:
well, if we have lower imprisonment and a higher crime rate versus higher imprisonment and a lower crime rate, we do have correlation. While it would be difficult to ever actually prove causation with certainty, simple common sense does help bridge the gap-do criminals commit more crimes than the one they are actually imprisoned for. Undoubtedly, the answer to that question is yes.
6.9.2008 1:30pm
AnonLawStudent:
Is there any data on the total rate of institutionalization (prison + mental) in Britain? Cf. this post by guest-blogger Bernard Harcourt on total institutionalization rate in the U.S. A correlation between total institutionalization and crime rate in multiple countries would tend to create an inference of causation.
6.9.2008 1:33pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
I don't have any opinion about incarceration rates, except that, looking around me, I see people I think probably should be in prison, so -- unless there are a lot of people in who shouldn't be in -- they must be too low.
6.9.2008 1:37pm
Oren:
The question is not "what do we get from prisons?", it's "is what we get from prisons worth the cost". At $25k/prisoner-year, it's a fairly horrible deal. Given the recent downturn in State tax revenue, we are seeing huge numbers of non-violent prisoners released early to keep the budget balanced. It might be eminently democratic to have the "lock them all up" attitude but the vast public desire to pay for that incarceration seems manifestly absent.
6.9.2008 1:39pm
frankcross (mail):
It all makes sense, but those overall number seem crude. Shouldn't it be broken down by specific type of crime? I.e., probability of imprisonment for manslaughter vs. crime rate for manslaughter (perhaps plus murder and related crimes).

Maybe imprisonment for marijuana possession is causing a drop in armed robbery rates but that seems a little questionable.
6.9.2008 1:39pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Once again, correlation does not prove causation, but it does require explanation (if it is to be dismissed). You don't dismiss it merely by reciting the mantra.
6.9.2008 1:39pm
Oren:
"For the vast majority of inmates prison is a temporary, not a final, destination. The experiences inmates have in prison — whether violent or redemptive — do not stay within prison walls, but spill over into the rest of society. Federal, state, and local governments must address the problems faced by their respective institutions and develop tangible and attainable solutions."
—Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), Chair, Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Corrections and Rehabilitation
6.9.2008 1:41pm
Commenterlein (mail):
It is pretty well known that the British criminal justice system is a mess, so why use it as comparion for the US system? Wouldn't it make more sense to look at a (industrialized and democratic) country where the system works reasonably well, and compare that to the US?

The same tactic is often employed by people trying to defend the US healthcare system againts the single-payer alternative. Simply take the British NHS, pretty much the worst possible way of implenting a single payer system, as comparison and conclude that the US system rocks. And don't ever mention France or Sweden.
6.9.2008 1:46pm
jgshapiro (mail):
well, if we have lower imprisonment and a higher crime rate versus higher imprisonment and a lower crime rate, we do have correlation. While it would be difficult to ever actually prove causation with certainty, simple common sense does help bridge the gap-do criminals commit more crimes than the one they are actually imprisoned for.

Lots of other explanations could also bridge the gap.

For example, there could have been a greater focus on rehabilitation in the UK that led to less recidivism in the UK (was there?).

Or there could have been other causes for less crime in the US that coincided with greater imprisonment. I recall that the authors of Freakonomics claimed that legalized abortion post-1973 may have been responsible for less crime once the aborted children would have reached the prime age for law-breaking (roughly post-1990).

Also I wonder whether "crime" is defined consistently in this analysis - both between the US and the UK and across the relevant time periods. Does the UK have similar laws re drug possession? More than a few prisoners in the US are imprisoned on non-violent drug-related crimes.
6.9.2008 1:48pm
BobDoyle (mail):
A Clockwork Orange!!!
6.9.2008 1:49pm
Wally Wood (mail) (www):
It seems apparent that if we lock up a bad person who does bad things, he (or, in a growing number of cases) she cannot cause as much mischief while locked away. But is locking people away the only reason crime rates fall? What effect has liberalized abortion rates had on the number of unwanted baby births? (I think it's fair to assume that a good number of such unwanted/uncared-for children gravitate to crime.) Fewer such children, fewer crimes. What effect does economic growth have on crime rates? More jobs, less reason to knock over a gas station. It seems simplistic to equate even the 25 to 30 percent of the reduction to more people in prison for longer sentences. Why not 50 percent?

The comparison with the British experience seems totally specious. The culture is different; the population's attitudes toward locking people away for long sentences is different (including the attitude toward capital punishment); the kinds of crimes that get people locked away are different.

And as others have pointed out, correlation even if accurate is not causation.
6.9.2008 1:51pm
PLR:
Is it just me, or is the water really shallow in this pool?
6.9.2008 2:04pm
Andy C.:

We deprive gulity people of liberty to make innocent people safer.

I fail to see how locking up those who don't violate anyone else's rights to life, liberty, or property (see: drug crimes, prostitution, etc) makes innocent people safer. But maybe that's just me.
6.9.2008 2:06pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Here are the stats on the UK's prison population from 1981 through 2003. It does appear that the UK prison population dropped by about 5,000 between 1987 and 1992 but according the UK government, the prison population in England and Whales has increased by about 64% from 1993 to 2003
6.9.2008 2:11pm
Fred1000 (mail):
Aren't America's high incarceration rates largely the result of its drug policies, including mandatory minimums? And are these drug users and dealers the people committing burglaries and assaults?
6.9.2008 2:11pm
Iolo:
At $25k/prisoner-year, it's a fairly horrible deal.

Only if releasing them would cost us less than $25K/prisoner-year, which has not been demonstrated.

don't ever mention France or Sweden.

Can someone point me to an English-language source on the greatness of these systems?
6.9.2008 2:11pm
Turk Turon (mail):
Correlation vs. Causation. If criminals were capable of committing only one crime in their lifetime, then jailing them could not possibly reduce crime. But the overwhelming experience in the U.S. has been that each criminal commits numerous crimes. So if we locked each of them up for life immediately upon conviction of their first crime, we would eliminate all future crimes committed by those prisoners. In the U.S., we are somewhere in the middle: if we knew which prisoners were most likely to re-offend, we would keep them in prison indefinitely, the way we do with the criminally insane. But since we can't predict future criminality, we err on the side of mercy and let these guys out. And some of them re-offend, sometimes spectacularly.
6.9.2008 2:12pm
Muskrat (mail):
"There are a lot of criticisms one can make of prisons, but sending offenders there, provided it is done correctly and without abuse, is an eminently democratic strategy..."

Just one of the reasons why the founding fathers were a little suspicious of pure democracy. 51% of the people can put the other 49% in jail.
6.9.2008 2:14pm
Visitor Again:
Yes, too many generalities, not enough specifics. I'd like to see the breakdown of the different categories of crime for which people are sent away and the breakdown of the reduction in rates for different categories of crime.

What are the rates for reduction in violent crime, in property crime and in nonviolent drug crime? I've read that a fairly large percentage of those in jail or prison--I don't remember what it is precisely--is there for nonviolent drug offenses. Does putting people away for nonviolent drug offenses reduce the rate of violent crime or the rate of property crime? If not, perhaps the cost of incarcerating them is not worthwhile.
6.9.2008 2:17pm
Ohismith (mail):
could you please give a definition of "elites". Remember, prez Bush said "here we are with the have's and the have mores, or, as I like to call you, my base". If that's not elite, I don't know what is (since the poster did not define the term other than Brit MP's). And yet, they are the ones locking up everybody they can find.
Taxes pay for prisons; the costs of not locking up offenders are borne not by government but by the victims. Why shouldn't the victims bear the costs? I'm not the one attacked, why should I bear the cost?
6.9.2008 2:18pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Professor Wilson... thanks for blogging. Based on my own experience working in the criminal justice system at various levels (as a prosecutor and as an attorney for our state's governor handling pardons and most other criminal justice issues), there's a common misconception in the public mind that our jails are filled with "non-violent drug offenders," and a bunch of fisrt-time drug offenders. I've tried to explain to folks that this is far from the case, and that in fact one must generally work very hard (depending, of course, on the particular jurisdiction) in order to get sent to prison. In my experience, almost all inmates in jail for a length of time had either committed a quite violent crime or had accumulated a long arrest and conviction record before being finally sent off.

Would it be possible for you to address and provide some statistics on this issue? It would be most helpful. I recall in looking for some statistics from DOJ on the subject that one problem I had was finding a definition or description of "most serious offense." Most stats that need to assign a single offense to each inmate assign the "most serious offense," but what does that mean in practice? From my own experience as a prosecutor, where an offender had committed both a violent offense and a drug offense, it was sometimes the case that the drug offense had a potentially greater penalty or a mandatory minimum, so that if "most serious offense" is categorized based on largest potential sentence, the drug charge would be the "most serious," even though in terms of human experience, we would call the violent crime more serious.
6.9.2008 2:20pm
Cold Warrior:
To the critics of James Q. Wilson's first post:

A little patience is in order. Having read some of Wilson's work, the analysis is sure to follow shortly.

Those who single out the "nonviolent" drug offenders who make up a significant portion of our prison/jail population make a good point, but again, let's not ignore the basic points of specific deterrence (a locked-up individual is unlikely to reoffend while he's locked up) and general deterrence (nothing focuses the attention of the would-be offender more than the threat of being caught and locked up for a long time).

Amazing that these basic points of logic are often ignored, as in the classic NY Times formulation: "crime rates fall, but prison populations continue at an all-time high ..."
6.9.2008 2:21pm
JB:
Comparing the US to Britain is not instructive. Britain is absolutely pathetic about crime, and certainly imprisons too few people for too short sentences. But that doesn't mean the US gets it right either--it's entirely possible that the US is too harsh, while the UK is too lenient.
6.9.2008 2:23pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Ohismith, one can't hope for much when addressing a comment which takes seriously a joke made by the President, but here goes...

We don't charge victims for the costs of incarceration because incarcerating or otherwise punishing those who break the law is one of the few truly legitimate functions of government. If you want to do away with that government function, then you've got to allow me and my family to protect ourselves in any way we can, with guns, private vengeance, you name it.

Beyond that, YOU do benefit from locking up criminals; the fact that the mugger was locked up yesterday may be the reason you were not mugged today.

P.S. From the way look at things, I would say that YOU are a member of the "elite."
6.9.2008 2:26pm
cjwynes (mail):
It's obvious that when criminals are in prison, they aren't out in the community committing crimes. Fewer criminals = fewer crimes. I hardly see what more has to be said about that. We don't need statistics to show a causal relationship when it's that obvious.

Now that doesn't work with regard to the drug trade, as the folks in the trenches will tell you that each time you lock one up another just steps in to fill his shoes. Maybe there's some point at which they lose so much by attrition that the whole thing crumbles, like Al Qaeda has, but that point never seems to get within reach.

But when it comes to, say, burglary, locking up repeat offenders for years works great. Not for the burglar, obviously, but great for us.

Now I am sensitive to cost/benefit anaylses. If prisons cost too much to operate, I suggest we take perks away from the inmates, and perhaps use many of them as manual laborers to recoup the costs of their incarceration.
6.9.2008 2:27pm
bikeguy (mail):

Taxes pay for prisons; the costs of not locking up offenders are borne not by government but by the victims. Why shouldn't the victims bear the costs? I'm not the one attacked, why should I bear the cost?

Sounds good as long as the death penalty is on the table.
6.9.2008 2:28pm
whit:

Professor Wilson... thanks for blogging. Based on my own experience working in the criminal justice system at various levels (as a prosecutor and as an attorney for our state's governor handling pardons and most other criminal justice issues), there's a common misconception in the public mind that our jails are filled with "non-violent drug offenders," and a bunch of fisrt-time drug offenders. I've tried to explain to folks that this is far from the case, and that in fact one must generally work very hard (depending, of course, on the particular jurisdiction) in order to get sent to prison. In my experience, almost all inmates in jail for a length of time had either committed a quite violent crime or had accumulated a long arrest and conviction record before being finally sent off.



correct. while i agree with the goals of those who think mj etc. should be legalized (or at least decrim'd) and more of a harm reduction vs. punitive approach be taken with drug USERS, the amount of propaganda and stuff coming from their ilk as to people being jailed (let alone imprisoned) for possessory offenses is WAY WAY overblown.

the way the stats are munged is that people who make this (false) claim will reference joe convict who was incarcertated for X years after being convicted of (for example) Possession.

what they fail to state is that this "possession" offense was a plea bargain down from a sales offense after the guy was caught selling and in possession of large quantities, and that the guy was also convicted of possession of stolen property, and has many many prior felony convictions. that would be an example.

it IS difficult to work your way into prison for possession, and not so easy even for sale, or possession with intent to sell . of course there are exceptions, but as somebody who has investigated over 300 felony and misdemeanor drug crimes in three different states, personally bought illegal drugs over 150 times while undercover, and followed hundreds of cases through the court systems - i know this is fact.
6.9.2008 2:30pm
L.A. Brave:
I'd like to offer an alternative explanation for the steep drop in violent crime: Wine
6.9.2008 2:31pm
cjwynes (mail):

Here are the stats on the UK's prison population from 1981 through 2003. It does appear that the UK prison population dropped by about 5,000 between 1987 and 1992 but according the UK government, the prison population in England and Whales has increased by about 64% from 1993 to 2003


Wait a second here. Are you telling us that the prison population is England and Wales has gone up significantly, but the overall prison population of the UK is down?

It sounds to me like a certain other member of the UK is letting their criminals get off Scot-free.
6.9.2008 2:33pm
TRE:
Yeah I think the ashamed part is because most of our prisoners are for drug crimes.
6.9.2008 2:34pm
Randy R. (mail):
" But is locking people away the only reason crime rates fall? "

I recall reading an interesting theory that high crime rates correlate with lead based paint.

Apparently, the author found that when lead based paint was phased out in the US, a generation later, crime rates fell. He compared this with other countries and found a similiar pattern, even when other controlling factors were eliminated (such as increased penalties). He made a plausible argument.

I've seen other studies that suggest that when abortion is made easier, you have fewer kids who grow up criminals. Other studies have found that crime stats relate to the baby boomers, and when the boom tailed off, so did crime. Then there is the study that showed that emergency room treatment has improved so much that a shooting that would have resulted in death a few decades ago, now often doesn't. Therefore, fewer murder cases, although attempted murder would presumably still be present.

Whether any of this is true, I don't know. What seems likely, though is that to give higher incarceration rates ALL the credit for lowering crime is highly suspect. It is likely a combination of many factors.
6.9.2008 2:42pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
Right on, Whit. Excellent examples of how the statistics on that front can be misleading.

When I was working for our governor, we had several initiatives get through the legislature to create additional avenues for early release for "non-violent offenders." Even our secretary of corrections was largely in favor of the program, because he, too, expected that he was locking up a lot of people who didnt' really need to be. As part of the process, there were "review panels" on which sat either the secretary himself or one of his top deputies (among other people). After sitting on several panels to hear cases which had already been winnowed out in a screening process to only those technically eligible (i.e., no violent offenders), he remarked to me that he was quite surprised at how few suitable candidates there were for release. He actually told me he didn't realize until then just how hard you have to work to get sent to prison.
6.9.2008 2:43pm
Ted Frank (www):
PatHMV's comment corresponds to my experience clerking. I was ready to be outraged by the number of victimless crimes being prosecuted under federal drug laws, but, out of the hundreds of cases I reviewed, only three or four involved truly non-violent offenders: a Deadhead dealing LSD, the wife of a big-time marijuana dealer, a small-business owner who also sold rocks in his convenience store (and had the misfortune to keep a gun under the counter), and some poor mule shipping a carload of hundreds of pounds of marijuana who couldn't/wouldn't identify his upstream supplier.
6.9.2008 2:57pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Yeah I think the ashamed part is because most of our prisoners are for drug crimes.


Yes it's a terrible shame that a "non-violent drug offender" whose only "crime" was peddling crack to school kids might find himself being sent to prison.
6.9.2008 3:00pm
Alan Gunn (mail):
Public opinion on crime seems to work in only one direction: more crimes and stiffer penalties. Elite opinion, by contrast, can go either way; the belief (which I share) that sentences for minor drug offenses are much too harsh may be an example. I can think of no plausible scenario in which someone runs for judge or DA on a platform of reducing "anti-crime" efforts, and very few in which someone might run for a legislature while advocating decriminalizing something or even reducing sentences. (We did have an election for prosecutor here in which the incumbent lost, in part because he was seen as often overcharging and being unwilling to plea bargain. But those were generally seen as bad because they impeded his getting convictions, not because he was "too tough.")

None of this has anything to do with the merits, to be sure. I'm certainly not claiming that "elite opinion" is better than popular sentiment. My guess is that each is biased, in opposite directions.
6.9.2008 3:00pm
A.W. (mail):
You know, you are begging to get made fun of in the "Best of the Web" for this line:

> the British prison population dropped by about five thousand inmates despite a sharp rise in the crime rate.

But I know your heart is in the right place.

I was struck by something I got from YLS. In my first class, with then-Dean Kronman, in our first case, we dealt with theories of damages for breach of contracts. His point was you have to pay attention to the bottom line; the value of the right is the inverse of the value of the remedy.

I don't know Kronman's views of crime and punishment but for me it is the most powerful justification for real punishment up to and including the death penalty: you vindicate the value of the right abridged by imposing an appropriately severe sentence.

And, btw, most crimes are committed by a handful of people and if you take them off the streets, they will stop victimizing the populus.
6.9.2008 3:01pm
Iolo:
But that doesn't mean the US gets it right either--it's entirely possible that the US is too harsh, while the UK is too lenient.

Or, the US could be too lenient compared to some essentially crime-free societies!
6.9.2008 3:03pm
JK:
It's fascinating to me that while every expert on criminology I've ever spoken with/heard speak, has concluded that imprisonment in the US is, more often than not, counterproductive, that the fundamental support for your argument is that "scholars have estimated..."
and conclude the exact opposite of what appears to be a general consensus among criminologists.

Excuse me if this raises huge red flags as to the context appropriateness of these statistics in your argument.
6.9.2008 3:07pm
John Neff:
In my state (Iowa) the public has said that they want harsh penalties for violent crimes and drug trafficking and as a consequence the most common charge for new prison admissions is drug trafficking. The most common crime for those incarcerated is a violent crime because of LWOP and mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes.

In addition there are a fair number of persons in prison who are mentally ill and/or are addicted to alcohol/drugs. They are there because they were convicted of a crime and sentenced to prison but the illness/addiction was an important contributing factor leading to their incarceration.

It appears that that what are called "nonviolent offenders" in addition to drug offenders are property and public order offenders and it does not appear that very many of them are "first time offenders". If fact the most likely first time offender is a person with no prior record that was convicted of a serious violent crime.

Are the public safety benefits to Iowans worth the cost? I think the answer is no because many of those incarcerated could be rigorously supervised in the community at much lower cost. On the other hand my opinion is that Iowans are willing to pay more for incarceration instead of rigorous supervision because they have no confidence in risk assessment or they are unwilling to take any risks.
6.9.2008 3:10pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):
Whit, PatHMV, Ted Frank - interesting perspectives on the current prison population and the myth of the 'but I didn't inhale!' inmate.

One question though: If all it takes is a bit of actual investigation to uncover these facts, then how come as far as I can tell there is NO ONE in the MSM saying this? Is it that they already know the answer they want to hear, and therefore don't do anything that might result in new knowledge? Is the institution really THAT incurious?
6.9.2008 3:13pm
30yearProf:
Correlation vs. Causation. Maybe there is proof of causation between more imprisonment and less crime, but I don't see it in this post (nor do I see a link to one).


Most crime is committed by repeat offenders. Put them in prison and they get less opportunity to repeat. Thus, less crime.
6.9.2008 3:13pm
john w. (mail):
" ... what they fail to state is that this "possession" offense was a plea bargain down from a sales offense after the guy was caught selling and in possession of large quantities,..."

A.) Isn't that just an example of why excessive reliance on plea bargaining by the Justice System is a bad thing?

B.) There are those of us who would argue that selling politically incorrect plant juices/byproducts to consenting adults ought not to be a prison offense in any case.
6.9.2008 3:13pm
whit:

It's fascinating to me that while every expert on criminology I've ever spoken with/heard speak, has concluded that imprisonment in the US is, more often than not, counterproductive, that the fundamental support for your argument is that "scholars have estimated..."
and conclude the exact opposite of what appears to be a general consensus among criminologists.

Excuse me if this raises huge red flags as to the context appropriateness of these statistics in your argument.



"experts" in criminology often tend to be the same ivory tower academics that have about as much real world knowledge as your average 'expert economist' who supported efficient market theory did.

just because somebody has a phd and/or teaches at a university doesn't make them an expert.
6.9.2008 3:15pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):

B.) There are those of us who would argue that selling politically incorrect plant juices/byproducts to consenting adults ought not to be a prison offense in any case.


What appears to be bouncing off your skull is the idea that maybe "selling politically incorrect plant juices/byproducts to consenting adults" is not the actual reason they are in jail.

Which is rather a rather remarkable feat, considering that's the idea you are attempting to discuss.
6.9.2008 3:18pm
JK:
It's nice to see a reasonable level of awareness regarding the problem of the mentally ill in prisions. Even if we ignore the humantarian issues, we're treating mental diseases with highly expensive incarceration that can be effectively treated with cheap generic medication.
6.9.2008 3:19pm
JK:

"experts" in criminology often tend to be the same ivory tower academics that have about as much real world knowledge as your average 'expert economist' who supported efficient market theory did.

just because somebody has a phd and/or teaches at a university doesn't make them an expert.

Agreed, but it still seems problematic to the faction of their oppinion that you like to support an overall conclusion that is in direct conflict to them. That just stinks of cherry picking and intelectual dishonesty. Ok, that's probably way to harsh for a quick blog post, but you get the idea.
6.9.2008 3:22pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
A.) Isn't that just an example of why excessive reliance on plea bargaining by the Justice System is a bad thing?


Nope, not at all.

B.) There are those of us who would argue that selling politically incorrect plant juices/byproducts to consenting adults ought not to be a prison offense in any case.


i) And when they're selling to minors?

ii) There are far more people who either support the existing criminal penalties for drug dealing or think that they should be made even tougher. If you think that the majority is wrong, then it will be up to you and other like-minded individuals to change their minds. Simply dismissing it as "selling politically incorrect plant juices/byproducts" is probably not the way to go about it.
6.9.2008 3:24pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):

we're treating mental diseases with highly expensive incarceration that can be effectively treated with cheap generic medication.


A rather large problem with that plan is you can't compel someone to take their meds, but you can compel them to stay in a prison.
6.9.2008 3:27pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
In the movie "The Big Chill", a bunch of folks about ten years out of U-Mich (I think) got together for various carryings-on. One, who had said her goal was to become a lawyer and defend criminals who were victims of the system, was asked why she quit. "I didn't know they'd be so guilty."
Richard Pryor, talking in one of his routines about visiting a prison and having been concerned about all the "strong black men there who could have been working for the race" finished up the bit by saying, "Thank God for prisons."
"Why'd you kill them?"
"They home."
It was funny, in the sense that, with Pryor you had to laugh if you didn't want to cry.
Yeah. Hard to get into prison and the meme that it's mostly first-time weed smokers is nonsense, as most people who peddle it already know. See, for example, Talkleft who is in a position to know better.

If a criminal whom we presume would continue to offend is in jail, he's not offending the rest of us. That's pretty well established. The only way that incarcerating him would not drop the crime rate is if there is a replacement for him. And, more to the point, if that replacement would have found honest work if the first guy had not been jailed.
Or, I suppose, in more difficult times, a rising crime rate wouldn't be rising by this guy's contributions, an incremental benefit.
6.9.2008 3:28pm
Jack M. (mail):
1. I don't know if blaming Parliament/home office for the crime policy is the same as blaming elites. After all, I assume those branches are democratically appointed. If Britain didn't like their policies, they would vote a tougher on crime into office.

2. An elite is inherently undefined, but I would assume you mean someone of the upper-middle to upper classes and attended well-regarded schools and has a higher education.

3. The difference between elite v. popular opinion is explained in 2 parts:
a) Any sub-group of a whole that does not share every characteristic of the whole is bound to disagree with some of the whole's decision. I'll bet if you compared poverty level people's opinion on crime with the whole, they would be different.
B)An elite can afford to study/treat a disliked group clinically, as an elite always has the option to leave the situation if the undesireable is too undesireable. The metaphor I use is the "safety net" approach. An elite advocating for fewer prison's is like a tightrope walker using a net. If he falls, the net catches him; he can therefore afford to take bigger risks on the tightrope (higher tightrope, use a bicycle, walk on your hands, etc.) than someone working without the safety net.
The safety net for an elite is basically their ability to thrive. Elites often have fungible talents (law, medicine, writing, upper management) that can be used in a variety of locations. They have the funds from higher paying jobs to relocate much more easily. They have personal connections to other places/areas due to mingling with other elites, who have all traveled a lot and met other elites. Non-elites have less money and less fungible or in demand talents---a teacher or steelworker is much more limited in a job market than a lawyer or a doctor.
So an elite can take a more forgiving approach to crime simply because if an area becomes too crime ravaged, they can move easily--or hire protection, if they are the most elite.
6.9.2008 3:42pm
Brian K (mail):
just because somebody has a phd and/or teaches at a university doesn't make them an expert.

so i assume them that you also have a problem with the line "The best scholars have estimated" in the original post? or do you happen to think those scholars are right solely because you like what they are saying? Afterall, "
[scholars] often tend to be the same ivory tower academics that have about as much real world knowledge as your average 'expert economist' who supported efficient market theory did."
6.9.2008 3:42pm
Kirk:
Oren,

I'll grant you that alternatives to prison are definitely worth discussing for non-violent offenders, but before doing that there's a prior argument about "non-violent" that needs to happen, too. My guess (and it's just that, a guess, albeit somewhat informed) that at the very low end of the property-criminal scale are quite a few for whom no other deterrent exists.
6.9.2008 3:44pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I got nothing on the merits, but I do think cjwynes deserves kudos for his "Scot-free" response.
6.9.2008 3:51pm
wisconsindoug (mail):
I have been a defense attorney and now a special prosecutor. Those "poor innocents" have either committed a serious felony or have a lengthy record that finally caused him to end up in prison. Most nonviolent small drug possession cases are usually resolved by probation. The more drugs, the more likely jail or prison time. Probation for first time offenses, even some assaultive crimes, are given. Mix of county jail (even a few days) along with probation is common. Most likely, the defendant commits some other crime while on probation. That may not put them back into jail or prison. Judges are usually well aware of the jail census and try not to exceed that as that prisoner will have to be housed somewhere else (nearby county jail) at more expense. In my view, these "poor innocents" really work hard to get to prison.
6.9.2008 3:52pm
jgshapiro (mail):

Those who single out the "nonviolent" drug offenders who make up a significant portion of our prison/jail population make a good point, but again, let's not ignore the basic points of specific deterrence (a locked-up individual is unlikely to reoffend while he's locked up) and general deterrence (nothing focuses the attention of the would-be offender more than the threat of being caught and locked up for a long time).

On the subject of general deterrence, I remember reading a study (I can't find the link anymore) showing that the perceived likelihood of a criminal being caught and convicted has a greater effect on general deterrence than the sentence they would face upon conviction if they were caught and convicted.

In other words, if a would-be criminal perceives an 80% chance of being caught, convicted and imprisoned for 5 years, they are less likely to commit the crime (more likely to be deterred) than if they perceive a 50% chance of being caught, convicted and imprisoned for 15 years. The likelihood of getting caught/convicted has a much greater deterrent effect than the length of the sentence.

That leads me to wonder if we should adjust our spending priorities along with our sentencing guidelines, so that we spend more money on police, DNA labs and the like, and less on prisons to house criminals with lengthy sentences. The lengthy sentences may deter the criminals that are already imprisoned, but they are costly in resources and perhaps not as effective as other means in deterring criminals who have yet to be imprisoned.
6.9.2008 3:54pm
Iolo:
If Britain didn't like their policies, they would vote a tougher on crime into office.

Oh please. In Britain, as here, there are a number of issues where the elites completely ignore the strongly expressed desires of the people. Crime is one of them. Immigration, another.
6.9.2008 4:03pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):
jgshapiro, do you actually think we can jack up the chance of being caught by 30% simply by upping spending on cops and labs?
6.9.2008 4:03pm
jgshapiro (mail):

jgshapiro, do you actually think we can jack up the chance of being caught by 30% simply by upping spending on cops and labs?

Yes, among other things.

But more to the point, as between where we put our resources, on catching criminals vs. imprisoning them for eons, I think we will get more bang for the buck out of the former than the latter.
6.9.2008 4:11pm
JK:

A rather large problem with that plan is you can't compel someone to take their meds, but you can compel them to stay in a prison.

Ok, I take back my statement about well informed commentary. Many standard anti-psychotic medication come in an injectable form. The reason why compulsory medication is so rare is not due to technical limitations, but legal ones (it is legally much easier to send someone to jail).
6.9.2008 4:16pm
Kirk:
John Neff,
my opinion is that Iowans are willing to pay more for incarceration instead of rigorous supervision because they have no confidence in risk assessment
Good point! Again, it undoubtedly sucks more to be the prisoner under such a system, but who can blame those who will bear the risk for wishing to abdicate that responsibility?
6.9.2008 4:19pm
Jim Anderson (www):
James Wilson writes,
We deprive guilty people of liberty to make innocent people safer.
A few questions: Does this justify punishment? Are you advocating an essentially utilitarian perspective? Should that be the metric by which we gauge the appropriateness of incarceration--its practical effects? Is there room for a Kantian at the policy table?
6.9.2008 4:20pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):
JK:

I WAS referring to legal reasons, thank you very much.

The same people who decry no alternatives to prison are often the SAME people who've made it difficult to legally compel medication... so although I share your opinion of the commentary, I disagree as to who precisely is the uninformed one.
6.9.2008 4:22pm
JK:
Sorry Ryan, but your previous post was at best ambigious on that account.
6.9.2008 4:33pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):
True
6.9.2008 4:34pm
Perseus (mail):
Is there room for a Kantian at the policy table?

Only if you agree with Kant that if society were to dissolve, all remaining convicted murderers must be executed lest we fail to honor them (and ourselves) as rational beings.
6.9.2008 4:37pm
whit:

so i assume them that you also have a problem with the line "The best scholars have estimated" in the original post? or do you happen to think those scholars are right solely because you like what they are saying? Afterall, "
[scholars] often tend to be the same ivory tower academics that have about as much real world knowledge as your average 'expert economist' who supported efficient market theory did."



exactly. i tend to cherry pick my experts. those who offer their expertise in fields where it is hard to judge their predictive ability, especially so.

and criminology certainly falls into that camp.

i have no problem with experts who come to conclusions that are vastly different than my preconceptions. that's good. it means you can learn something.

but criminology is much like economics, in that it's a soft science AT BEST, and all the classic jokes about economists (predicted 15 of the last 5 recessions, etc.) can be said about criminologists.

if theory has stood the test of time and real world application (see: robert peel for instance), it's gonna get a lot more credibility.
6.9.2008 4:38pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Kant.

Huh? What do we do with a guy who does to me what I would not want to do to him--originally, anyway--or anybody else?

Did Kant presume we could run a society simply by repeating the Categorical Imperative morning and evening?
6.9.2008 4:41pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
What we REALLY need are better alternatives not to prison but to probation. Too often, probation is nothing more than a slap on the wrist which does next to nothing to stop a criminal from committing more crimes.

To really stop a budding criminal from blooming into a full-fledged one takes a LOT of personal attention. One 5 minute lecture from the judge at sentencing followed by periodic, mostly routine check-ins with a probation officer doesn't have much of an impact on most folks who are at risk for becoming serious criminals (they work fine for mostly decent folks who made a few mistakes, but not for young men who have grown up mostly fatherless and impoverished, with little experience with the normal, law-abiding world). We have to start in the juvenile system, providing very intensive, hands-on rehabilitation (including life-skills training, how to address adults with respect, how to speak more accepted English, plus general education and more specific job training) programs at earlier signs of criminal conduct.

Because all the judges know that prisons are overcrowded, and moreover have a tendency to breed more criminals, they are often reluctant to give any kind of jail time at all to youngish offenders who may be starting on the path to crime. But there's not a lot of other options out there for the judge; it's often either probation or jail. Some jurisdictions have experimented with the concept of "drug court," where individuals whose primary problem is drugs get intensive supervision, drug-testing, and consistent appearances before the SAME judge. It's a lot of work, but it has shown some success. Going before the same judge time after time does a better job of teaching the offender that consequences flow from his or her choices. Also, the judge is better able to tell whether a particular lapse (a violation of probation) by the offender is just a temporary set-back to be overcome, or whether it is a sign that the offender is not taking this seriously which needs to be shocked out of him with jail time.
6.9.2008 4:45pm
Jmaie (mail):
In my experience, almost all inmates in jail for a length of time had either committed a quite violent crime or had accumulated a long arrest and conviction record before being finally sent off.


In Tacoma, Washington, there is a high incidence of auto theft. According to our local paper the Seattle/Tacoma area ranks in the top 25 cities nationally, and has for many years.

I'm told it generally takes six convictions for auto theft before the sentence includes any jail time. Perhaps Whit could give more details.

Any correlation?
6.9.2008 4:46pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Dr. Wilson - welcome to the blogoshere. You can ignore the sniping since it is generally not the result of a great deal of thought.

I would guess, for example, that those who doubt that incarceration serves to reduce crime have not spent much time thinking about the subject. Obviously cost and benefit calculations are involved, but the simple equation of removing criminals from society with less crime seems a good first cut.
6.9.2008 4:46pm
Ohismith (mail):
John Neff and Kirk, re Iowa's willingness to pay for incarceration, you're lucky you don't live in Calif. Here, we vote in ballot box reforms like Three Strikes but don't vote to fund them. Then the legislature has to take money from social programs (education being one) that are thought to prevent crime, and put the $$ into prisons and the prison guards' $100K salaries.
6.9.2008 4:48pm
Pete Zaitcev:
The sencence "We deprive guilty people of liberty to make innocent people safer" gave me a start because I read it as telling that guilty people had a liberty to make innocent people safer, and we deprived them. I suspect it was meant to say "deprive guilty of liberty _in order_ to make innocents safer".
6.9.2008 4:53pm
limaxray:
I think the 'non-violent drug crimes' debate here is interesting as I was under the impression it played a larger role nationally than many assert.

After reading the comments here it seems my perspective may have been a little bias. You see, I live in NJ, and have to deal with all the wonderful bits of genius that run the state and continuously drive up the state's enormous debt. One problem we've had is an overflowing prison system that we really can't afford to expand. And out of this has come the supposed fact that 32% of our prison population are non-violent drug offenders. This doesn't surprise me seeing as we are home to such wonderful areas as Camden and Newark and the state is one notch from being a full blown police state.

Anyway, I do get the feeling that is a NJ centric issue, as the article points out NJ has the largest percentage of such prison population in the country.
6.9.2008 5:00pm
A.W. (mail):
It also occurs to me that this is a specific example of american exceptionalism that mark styen talks alot about. why are incarceration rates down? because the elites don't want them. and the people, they can vote however they want, but it won't matter.

it ends up making you think of the process of ratifying the EU constitution. you vote for it, its ratified; you vote against it, they tell you to vote again and again until you get it right. One of the authors of the constitution said in a snooty fashion that it was too complicated to understand. but isn't that a problem for him? shouldn't he have written something the people could, in his estimation, understand?

You really have to wonder how much they believe in democracy over there.
6.9.2008 5:04pm
one of many:
if theory has stood the test of time and real world application (see: robert peel for instance), it's gonna get a lot more credibility.

Pfft, Burkeans. Next thing you'll be telling us that merely because things have tended to fall towards the Earth for centuries we should expect that when we put something down in mid-air it will fall towards to the Earth. Gravity is only a theory and there is no reason to ruin people's lives on such a basis.
6.9.2008 5:07pm
holdfast (mail):
If a "non-violent" criminal breaks into 26 cars in a year to steal stereos, small change etc, and does about $1000 in damage each time (replacement consoles are overpriced) then putting him in prison for $25k a year was a good deal.
6.9.2008 5:08pm
Thomas_Holsinger:
There is a "can't see the forest for the trees" issue for some posters here, so a quick refresher on criminal behavior is in order.

There are such things as serial repeat offenders, with some clear groupings among them - violent offenders, habitual sex offenders, drug offenders, etc. Deterrence means little to them - if they had the inner resources not to offend, most wouldn't. The proportion of such offenders who deliberately choose a life of crime is rather small.

Some of these groups merit treatment more than incarceration. Others merit really long jail sentences because getting them off the street has dramatic effects on overall crime rates, public safety from violence, etc.

There are some here who are so vested in their personal issues that they deny the existence of identifiable groups of repeat offenders whose lengthy incarceration produces a major public good.

On the other hand, properly identifying those groups to make the best use of penal insitution space, public funding, etc., merits a real discussion. As an example, California's "three-strikes" law is an attempt to blend identification of persons who merit really lengthy incarceration with sentences for such. Analysis of how effective that has been in practice would be fruitful.
6.9.2008 5:16pm
John Neff:
"Non violent drug offender" is used often by editorial writers and others to explain high incarceration rates. It is a trivial matter for an editorial writer to check facts but they don't think it is necessary because they have seen it said so many times by others. They also say that prisons are full of persons serving mandatory minimum sentences for drug possession. In Iowa there is no mandatory minimum for drug possession.

If drug traffickers are non violent why are people so afraid of them and why do some of them carry guns?
6.9.2008 5:31pm
TerrencePhilip:
Ask "Dungeon Dad" Josef Fritzl's family if they think the US is too harsh on its criminals, and the more "humane" approach of releasing sex offenders "to their families" is wise . . .
6.9.2008 5:41pm
Jacques Penmann (mail):
Might I suggest a third option? Rather than prison vs. freedom for criminals, why not preserve the brains cryonically and use the bodies for thermochemical production of renewable energy? Since their brains are preserved, they are technically "alive" and intact for revival in new bodies at a later time. Meanwhile, they will help to pay back their debt to society by providing clean bioenergy.
I have heard that a company has formed to provide this service, called Oynklent Green [OTC:OYNK]. It may bear watching.
6.9.2008 5:44pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
According to a chart I saw on the web (a reputable source but I can't find it now) we are once again imprisoning offenders at rates not seen since the early 60s. IOW our long national nightmare is over. Does imprisonment deter crime? It deters at least the prisoners.

Now, we would like to reduce the number of prisoners because it costs money to feed clothe and house them. To do that, we need to reduce the number of crimes and thus must attack the root causes of crimes.

Any crime prevention experts out there?
6.9.2008 5:50pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):
You're elected. Go deter them. Good luck!
6.9.2008 5:52pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Ryan sez, 'as far as I can tell there is NO ONE in the MSM saying this? ' -- that is, that almost all people ending up sentenced to prison have committed serial offenses.

The MSM paper I work for says it. Our courts reporter gives a lengthy report on almost every sentencing, quoting the judges lecturing the criminals to the same effect over and over: You've wasted your chances, you're still young enough to turn your life around etc. (And the standard response: Please give me probation, I just need to find a residential treatment program.)

Of course, we have the advantage of being a small county so we can do this. But no one who reads our reports would have the impression that the American judicial system is (as a Milwaukee socialist judge called it in the '70s) "America's only working railroad."

I endorse Pat's view, except to note that quite a number of people charged with minor assault (shoving the wife), petty theft and driving drunk end up spending long months in jail before trial because they are such hopeless schmoos that they cannot make even small bails, and neither their friends nor their bail bondsmen will step up for them.

The underlying reason for this is, IMO, that the only thing these dumb clucks can be relied on to do is screw up again, and everybody knows it.

When my youngest daughter was about 11, I took her with me to district court to watch sentencings one morning. When it was over, she said, "I get it. You tell them you've found Jesus and they let you go."

Smart kid.
6.9.2008 6:11pm
Abandon:
What are crime rates really telling us? My guess, reported crimes. Looking at the comparative homicide rates (the crimes that ough to be the most systematically reported), US figures are scary in comparison to those from UK: 0.042802 per 1,000 people in US, 0.0140633 per 1,000 people for the UK. In that matter, the difference is much spectacular.

Also, comparing American and Canadian crime rates in relation to imprisonment rates' evolution over the time is pretty convincing: none of the arguments brought by Pr Wilson seem to pass the test.

IMHO, imprisonment rate may have something to do with crime rates to certain extend, but its effect may drown in the huge pool of parameters that truly need to be taken in consideration in any serious analysis.
6.9.2008 6:17pm
Frater Plotter:
Abandon: Crime rates as measured by DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics include unreported crimes as well as reported ones.

See: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance.htm

After peaking in the 1980s, violent crime and property crime rates (as measured in victimizations per 1000 persons) have declined precipitously. The rate of violent crime today is about two-fifths what it was in the '80s.
6.9.2008 6:37pm
Mike_K (mail) (www):
"Simply take the British NHS, pretty much the worst possible way of implenting a single payer system, as comparison and conclude that the US system rocks. And don't ever mention France or Sweden."

France is NOT a single payer system and it is the best health care system in Europe. I think it is an excellent model for the US and I have posted a series of analyses of it and comparison to our own. Mandatory treatment of mental illness has been unenforceable since the 1960s.
6.9.2008 6:44pm
jccamp (mail):
Thanks to Prof. Wilson for braving the hordes here.

Lots of numbers thrown about, so here is the 2004 numbers for state - not Federal - prisons. Link is here.

State inmates 2004
Total 100 %
Violent 52
Property 21
Drug 20
Public-order 7

So, about 20% of state prison inmates are in for serious drug offenses. As Whit noted, some part of this number were charged with multiple crimes - probably involving civilian witnesses - and the government chose to try or accept a plea on the drug counts which probably only involve government witnesses.

Now, something every criminal lawyer and law enforcement person knows. Professional criminals - those who make their primary income from crime - are a very small part of the population. Imprisoning small numbers of professional criminals can have a seemingly disproportionate effect on the crime rate. e.g. A burglar stealing to support a drug habit may commit a burglary a day (very conservative). Putting the burglar in prison prevents 365 burglaries within the jurisdiction. An armed robber may do 2 robberies a week, so putting him in prison prevents 104 armed robberies. A serial rapist may have a monthly frequency, so 12 rapes a year could be prevented.

There are undoubtedly many reasons crime has been down at the same time prison populations are up. But why ignore or debate the obvious? Felons sitting in a cell can't steal your toaster oven, beat up your child or rape your wife. That core group of professional criminals aren't typically responsive to rehab efforts, a job at Burger King, like that. They are dangerous sociopathic personalities with little human empathy. Whatever the cost, locking them away is a sound investment for the rest of us.

The wisdom of the war on drugs is a completely different argument from questioning the efficacy of putting felons in prison.
6.9.2008 6:47pm
jccamp (mail):
Oops. I didn't mean "criminal lawyer" in the sense that the lawyer may be doing something unlawful. I meant attorneys in the practice of law in criminal courts, as either defense or prosecutor.
6.9.2008 6:50pm
WebSpinner (mail):
I think that, in the US, there are additional factors helping to reduce the crime rates. In the US, the police can use reasonable force (including shooting 'em dead, if they have cause) to subdue and collar suspects and criminals. Also, there has been an ongoing trend for federal and state support for "castle" laws, concealed carry laws, etc. that support individual rights of self-protection - if you are accosted and you kill or gravely wound the perp, the authorities and the law (mostly) support you.

Both the British police capabilities and rights of subjects (note - not citizens) to self defense are severely diminished in comparision.
6.9.2008 6:54pm
Thomas_Holsinger:
Abandon,

You seem to take official European statistics concerning crime, public health, etc., at face value. This is unwise. Some European countries keep accurate statistics of those things. Most do not, and some cook 'em. The United Kingdom is one of the latter. Its crime (particularly sex crime) and public health statistics are notoriously inaccurate, and prepared that way for domestic political reasons.
6.9.2008 6:55pm
Abandon:
Frater Plotter wrote:

Abandon: Crime rates as measured by DOJ's Bureau of Justice Statistics include unreported crimes as well as reported ones.

See: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/glance.htm

After peaking in the 1980s, violent crime and property crime rates (as measured in victimizations per 1000 persons) have declined precipitously. The rate of violent crime today is about two-fifths what it was in the '80s.


Thanks for your comment and the well deserved clarification (I will likely consider it to be true even if I was unable to find the proof of it on the url you submitted). But the point remains as we are talking about comparative studies on crime rates. Evaluating reported and reported crime rates the same way for both US and the UK is impossible to do, for various obvious reasons. Hence why I evocated the statistic that ought to be closer to reality in BOTH countries.

As for the decline in different sectors of crime rates since the 1980s, the same phenomenon has been observed in countries that have not been - in the same period of time - as obsessed as the US in giving extended prison sentences. This is what my last argument addressed.
6.9.2008 7:00pm
Abandon:
Corr:

"...evaluating reported and unreported..."
6.9.2008 7:02pm
tomc (mail):
Why are you people assuming such good faith on the part of these "drug crimes are victim-free" people ? They simply want to use drugs, and they want the freedom to disregard the law. Not, obviously, just the piece on one specific drug, but all. They, after all, are smarter and more capable of making judgements than the justice apparatus.

Drug crimes are never victim-free. They pose, as anyone who's ever seen a (psychological or physical) addict knows extremely well, too great a risk. Furthermore they (again obviously) take productivity away from society (this is not marxist, nor fascist, opinion but a simple matter of fact. Dogs abandon intoxicated members of the group, think that's a coincidence ? So do humans, it's not that nobody knows this, but everybody likes to deny it)

It also poses another danger : you would only do so if you have a disrespect for the law. It shows young people that disrespecting the law is okay, that "the system" is only there to impose limits on poor, defenseless kids. It shows kids that when they think they know better what limits are to be imposed, that everybody's opinion should be respected (including that of the kid that thinks stealing is okay, as long as he's the one stealing obviously, ... Including the opinion of the class bully and a girl from 2 grades lower of what constitutes "sexual invitation" ("she likes it rough"-excuse))

By tolerating drug use, or even alcohol addiction, you are making young people fight the police, fight "the system", fight "the government". You are pressuring people to act irresponsibly and learning them to punish responsible people (for the moment probably only by making them social outcasts, but it will devolve into physical attacks)

The fact that people fight "the system" necessitates more laws.

E.g. it is trivially simple to deduce that freedom of assembly has to be curtailed once it gets used to stake out cops, how many cop-killing "flash-mobs" do you think it takes for the president (whoever he is, rep or dem, or perhaps especially a dem pres) to repeal freedom of assembly ? This is an extreme example, but as you can see these freedoms, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of party organizing, are trivially simple to abuse to attack people with if that's your intention.

The same goes for virtually any freedom. Disrespect of the law will, by itself destroy the freedoms Americans enjoy. If the law is acceptably broken by just anyone, then the government is simply the party with the biggest guns. One that can be blown out of the country.

There should be only a bare minimum of law. And that little bit of law should have the status of being utterly inviolate. In Europe's cities nobody minds even violent crimes in the middle of public places. The same could happen in America, and sorry to say, tolerating drug use makes the government the enemy.

When you see a cop running is it acceptable to hit him if he's going to arrest a drug user ? Because that's the next step after tolerating drug use, and quite normal in Brussels in discos.

In summary : Allowing people to violate the law, starting in trivial cases, is what causes totalitarian states to develop. Once breaking the law is acceptable behavior in a small case, a bigger one shows it's ugly head ("sure I raped her, but that guy got of free for dealing, and that's more years in the book"), total breakdown of the justice system is unavoidable, and the only response to that is a totalitarian system.
6.9.2008 7:11pm
hattio1:
Whit and others make the point that just because someone was locked up because they committed a "non-violent possession offense" are not usually non-violent posessors because their cases were often pled down from drug dealing charges are missing an important fact. In many states, the amount of a product you have can automatically deem you a dealer in the absence of any other indicia of dealing. And the amounts are shockingly low in some states. There's also the problem of DA's overcharging, because they know the charge will probably be pled down. So, if you want to tease out the true drug possessions from those pled down, you have to do more than look at the initial charge.
6.9.2008 7:23pm
Frater Plotter:
Why are you people assuming such good faith on the part of these "drug crimes are victim-free" people ? They simply want to use drugs, and they want the freedom to disregard the law.

On the contrary, legalization advocates want to obey and respect the law, by repealing bad laws that are not worthy of respect.
6.9.2008 7:34pm
whit:

Drug crimes are never victim-free. They pose, as anyone who's ever seen a (psychological or physical) addict knows extremely well, too great a risk. Furthermore they (again obviously) take productivity away from society (this is not marxist, nor fascist, opinion but a simple matter of fact. Dogs abandon intoxicated members of the group, think that's a coincidence ? So do humans, it's not that nobody knows this, but everybody likes to deny it)


this is patently absurd anti-drug propaganda. i will pick it apart. :)

btw, not to get all into my bona fides, but i spent a LONG time working undercover (as well as working in plainclothes ) drug investigations, and thus have spent hundreds of hours "hanging out' with dopers (dealers and users), so i feel i have a pretty good grasp on this issue. i have also testified as an expert witness.

first of all, you equate drug crimes with addicts. that is your first mistake. many drug crimes are committed by non-addicts. ime, the VAST majority. first of all there are a # of drugs that while psychologically habit forming (note that blogging is psychologically habit forming...) are not addictive. heroin is addictive. marijuana is not. and contrary to anti-drug propaganda, many many drug users can recreationally use drugs w.o becoming addicts.

i knew many while in college, and also while undercover. a person who smokes an occasional joint is no more an "addict" than somebody who has an occasional beer. furthermore, the latter CAN cause addiction, and the former cannot. that's a matter of medical science.

some drugs are very addictive - crystal meth comes to mind. others, less so- cocaine hydrochloride comes to mind. many many people are occasional recreational users of cocaine for example. in college, i knew one of the top students at the school, who occasionally used cocaine - recreationally AND to help him study.

remember, i spent a long time hanging out with recreational drug users (in order to be intro'd to dealers so i could make buys).

2nd of all, drug USE (vs. serious abuse) often does not diminish productivity. in some cases, it even INCREASES productivity. again, that's reality, not anti-drug hysteria. stimulants (generally) increase productivity. caffeine, cocaine, etc. can. NHTSA studies show driving performance ACTUALLY INCREASES on small doses of cocaine, just to explain to you that all drugs in all doses are bad = bad science.

there are LOTS of things that decrease productivity. eating yourself into obesity certainly does. it also costs society TONs of money in health care costs, lost productivity, etc. the CDC estimates that the VAST majority of disease is primarily behavior based, specifically related to obesity and poor food choices. do we criminalize obesity, then?

i'm all about social structures, religion, etc. creating incentives (and disincentives) for aberrant behavior. but drug use =/= abuse, drug use =/= addiction, drug use=/= bad health, etc. etc.

the science, as well as my experience, supports these concepts. your post is just hysteria, rhetoric, and exaggeration.

plenty of illegal drugs can be used responsibly (apart from the fact they are illegal), increase quality of life, increase productivity (even), etc. plenty of legal drugs (tobacco comes to mind) are pretty friggin bad as well.

also from a law enforcement perspective, i would WAY rather deal with a stoner than a drunk. the former are rarely belligerent or violent. their worst offense is eating cheezy poofs and laughing at bad jokes.
6.9.2008 7:56pm
Malvolio:
i) And when they're selling to minors?
Won't someone please think of the chilllldren?

Yes, it would suck if my kids started using crack, but if they did, it would be my fault, and their fault -- not the retailers fault.
6.9.2008 8:18pm
Kirk:
Mike_K,
Mandatory treatment of mental illness has been unenforceable since the 1960s
Not so, it merely requires a committment hearing.
6.9.2008 8:25pm
Dr. T (mail) (www):
but sending offenders there, provided it is done correctly and without abuse, is an eminently democratic strategy

The major reason for the rapid rise in prisoner population in the 1980s and 1990s was strict enforcement of drug-of-abuse laws, and the widespread use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes. When possession of enough marijuana for ten days of personal use automatically becomes possession with intent to sell with a 5-10 year mandatory minimum sentence, it is easy to understand why our prisons are full. This may be a "democratic" strategy (most citizens apparently want to imprison recreational drug users for decades), but that does not make it fair or just.
6.9.2008 8:30pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Yes, it would suck if my kids started using crack, but if they did, it would be my fault, and their fault -- not the retailers fault.


All right then, you would make it legal to sell crack to children.

If that's really the alternative put forth by the pro-legalization crowd, then there is very little chance that the WOSD will be ratcheted back much less ended anytime soon.
6.9.2008 8:40pm
whit:

When possession of enough marijuana for ten days of personal use automatically becomes possession with intent to sell with a 5-10 year mandatory minimum sentence, it is easy to understand why our prisons are full.


completely unrealistic rubbish.

this has already been explained to be a myth, by people who actually work in the court system, law enforcement, etc.

it's a lie and it does a disservice to the legalization cause.
6.9.2008 8:51pm
Elliot123 (mail):
The elites tend to support the idea that all cultures are of equal value, and all groups in society commit crimes at the same rate. However, some minorities have far higher crime rates than the average. Jailing people is a very stark deminstration that the elites are wrong, and there really are big differences in crime rates of different racial and cultural groups.

They would rather endanger all of us by letting crooks run loose than have to admit they are wrong.
6.9.2008 9:02pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
It's too simplistic to say that there are lots of non-violent drug offenders in prison, but it's also too simplistic to act as though the drug laws only affect violent people.

First, some commenters are implicitly substituting "possession" for "non-violent," but the two aren't the same. Sale is also non-violent. (That's not to say that drug traffickers can't be violent, but just that sale -- much less the lesser crime of possession-with-intent -- is not a violent crime. And yes, there are mandatory minimums for possession in some places; see, e.g., the Rockefeller laws.)

Second, while few people are sent to jail solely for possession, that's not to say that the criminal justice system doesn't devote resources to those guilty solely of possession. (I realize the focus of the post is prison, but the comments are broader than that.)

Third, as a commenter noted above, looking at the initial charge and then claiming that since the person plea bargained to a lesser one, he must "really" be guilty of the greater one, is misleading, because prosecutors have every incentive to overcharge initially, in order to give them room to plea bargain.

Fourth, making possession and sale illegal turns non-violent crimes violent.

Fifth, making possession illegal -- even if one doesn't send the "criminals" to prison -- helps create violent criminals. Once one has a criminal record, even for a non-violent crime, it's much harder for one to earn a legal living.
6.9.2008 9:33pm
Can't find a good name:
If legalized abortion contributes to a drop in the crime rate about 17 years later, then that effect should not be exclusive to the United States. The UK legalized abortion effective in 1968, except in Northern Ireland, so one might have expected the drop in crime to take place five years earlier in Great Britain.
6.9.2008 9:44pm
Oren:

Oren,

I'll grant you that alternatives to prison are definitely worth discussing for non-violent offenders, but before doing that there's a prior argument about "non-violent" that needs to happen, too. My guess (and it's just that, a guess, albeit somewhat informed) that at the very low end of the property-criminal scale are quite a few for whom no other deterrent exists.
I'm sure there are many folks that cannot be rehabilitated. That said, on the balance, we would be better to try it with everyone.
6.9.2008 9:51pm
Oren:
On the contrary, legalization advocates want to obey and respect the law, by repealing bad laws that are not worthy of respect.
There is a Jewish saying far predating the war on drugs: "You shall not make a law that will not stand [because] to do so is to bring disrespect onto the law [and therefore] disrespect onto God himself [since God is the source of all law]" -- poorly translated, perhaps, but the idea was prescient.
6.9.2008 9:54pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
My first best world would be legalize drugs and all non-violent crimes; but take an uber-Wilson "tough on crime/lock 'em up" stance towards those who do commit violent crimes.
6.9.2008 10:13pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Jon. Burglary is a non-violent crime. In your case, Bernie Ebbers, the CEO everybody loves to hate, wouldn't even have been investigated.
You sure you don't want to narrow that down a skosh?
6.9.2008 10:17pm
Mike_K (mail) (www):
Kirk; You are technically correct. As a practical matter, you could join me and my medical students as we tour the homeless shelters in LA. There are thousands of parents who have been trying to get their schizophrenic children committed for years. Once in a while it is successful.
6.9.2008 10:30pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
No it's not. It violates property rights. Libertarians believe force (against persons or property) and fraud can be outlawed. To the extent that these stock crimes are legitimate crimes turns on whether things like insider trading truly are fraudulent practices.
6.9.2008 10:40pm
Kirk:
Mike_K,

Actually, I think maybe we're just each talking about our local situation. I have no desire to make any assertion about the situation in California; but on the other hand it's clear that WA manages to involuntarily commit quite a few who need it.
6.9.2008 11:46pm
Christopher (mail):
"This raises the interesting question of why elite views should be so different from popular ones. Some possible explanations:"

maybe the laws for violating the elites property or person are different then for similar incursions against common people.
6.9.2008 11:56pm
rgaye (mail):

I WAS referring to legal reasons, thank you very much.

The same people who decry no alternatives to prison are often the SAME people who've made it difficult to legally compel medication... so although I share your opinion of the commentary, I disagree as to who precisely is the uninformed one.


I think you have this backward. The SAME people who want minimum or no jail time for 'non violent, victimless or minor' crimes are generally the SAME people who have through court challenges and such fought legally compelling medication.
6.10.2008 3:18am
Jack M. (mail):
to the person who claims that it is not medically possible to become addicted to marijuana:

nice try, but that's bs. Drug treatment programs across the country deal with people unable to go a day without a joint--and not because they need it to reduce pain from medical problems.

You can become addicted to any substance: drinking, marijuana, cigarrettes. You're thinking of the old canard that while your body can become physically dependent on heroin, it can't on mary jane. That is true, but addiction doesn't stop there. You can't become medically "addicted" to drinking, either.

The key is psychological addiction. An alcoholic/pothead finds that he needs the effects of his drug of choice to function daily. The drunk needs the drink to de-stress, to deal with social situations, to make himself feel less lonely. The marijuana user has the same problems--the high allows him to escape psychological/social issues he has.

The "marijuana is safer than drinking, you can't get addicted" argument is something brought out by pot legalization groups, and is a failing argument. The better one is "pot is as safe as drinking", which is actually true.

And I'm in favor of legalization, but not because it isn't bad for you or isn't addictive.
6.10.2008 11:08am
Abandon:
Thomas Holsinger wrote:

You seem to take official European statistics concerning crime, public health, etc., at face value. This is unwise. Some European countries keep accurate statistics of those things. Most do not, and some cook 'em. The United Kingdom is one of the latter. Its crime (particularly sex crime) and public health statistics are notoriously inaccurate, and prepared that way for domestic political reasons.


Please note that I specifically insisted on comparative homicide rates between US and Canada and the UK. I doubt you read my comment carefully and/or you didn't quite get my intentions.

Besides, if one is to compare crime rates between two or more given countries, other aspects must be taken in consideration as a matter of explanation. It doesn't seem to be a concern to Pr. Wilson in this topic. Comparing numbers without qualifying them is a no no for academicians. But I know you agree with me on that point since this is what you seemed to be concerned with in your comment.
6.10.2008 11:42am
Thomas_Holsinger:
Abandon,

I admit that I did not notice your attempt to deal with the statistical accuracy problem. There are, however, other problems with your limitation to homicides. First, there are vast demographic differences here, such as relative access to firearms (lethality of violent encounters), America's far greater proportion of violence in drug and gang turf disputes as opposed to the greater British proportion of random lower class violence for jollies (i.e., seriousness and motivation of violence), and the uniquely American black urban underclass.

Second there are still statistical games. We count unsolved homicides as homicides. The British often don't. "He died of violence but we don't know if it was a homicide". Or "he died in the hospital several days later and we don't have a suspect, so it wasn't a homicide."
6.10.2008 1:38pm
whit:

to the person who claims that it is not medically possible to become addicted to marijuana:

nice try, but that's bs. Drug treatment programs across the country deal with people unable to go a day without a joint--and not because they need it to reduce pain from medical problems.

You can become addicted to any substance: drinking, marijuana, cigarrettes. You're thinking of the old canard that while your body can become physically dependent on heroin, it can't on mary jane. That is true, but addiction doesn't stop there. You can't become medically "addicted" to drinking, either.



I already explained that i was referring to PHYSICAL addiction. you can become mentally addicted to ANYTHING you enjoy - and that includes blogging on the internet.

so, spare me the semantic games.

you cannot have a physical addiction to mj. as i said. as for cocaine hydrochloride, it's mildly addictive.

on the other hand, drugs like crystal meth and heroin are very physically addictive.
6.10.2008 2:03pm
Oren:

you can become mentally addicted to ANYTHING you enjoy - and that includes blogging on the internet.
I tried to quite but now I'm relapsing hard!
6.10.2008 2:12pm
methodact:
"America" anagrams to "Amercia", land of no mercy. America needs scapegoats, always has, always will. Hey, that is what we do.
6.10.2008 3:22pm
Abandon:
Thomas Holsinger

I am well aware how looking at homicide rates alone to qualify national discrepancies in criminal rates is a no go. My aim was not to stick on such limitation but merely to raise an issue I have with Pr. Wilson's methodology. If imprisonment rates truly have a significant effect on crime, we should expect to make the same observations in regards to murder rates, especially when it comes to murders committed by recidivist criminals. Well, available figures indicate we could not conclude in Wilson's direction, much to the contrary (and in a spectacular manner, if I may insist).

You claim that homicide rates should be looked at carefully in their precise contexts. I fully agree. Although I don't know how much I can trust your assertion that British police is looser than its American counterpart in identifying homicides, I suspect it is not significantly the case in regards to Canadian, Australian and most European countries who appear to show very different results than those of the US and, paradoxically, appear to have much lower incarceration rates.

In short, I raised a question regarding the use of sociometric data. What James Q. Wilson seems to be doing here could easily be considered as scientism, in the hayekian sense of the word. I am not to say that detention and jail do not deter crimes from being committed. I believe it does. But I have a big, big problem with the obvious ideological stance Mr. Wilson has taken and, above everything, the weak "demonstration" he came up with in this blog entry. He chose to obliterate datas from his analysis that were too important to be ignored. It comes to the point that, to me, his argumentation lacks seriousness and rigor.
6.10.2008 3:47pm