Perhaps the primary advantage to the public of prisons is that while incarcerated, the felons within are not committing crimes. Hold that thought, gentle readers, as we explore yet another of President Obama’s legacies: the release of the worst of the worst predators not only from Gitmo, but from continental American prisons. David Murray at The Weekly Standard explains:
Most efforts to understand the criminal justice system calculate the costs and social burden of crime, what most of us regard as the underlying cause of sadly necessary criminal justice expenditures.
The Obama administration disagrees, arguing that the American criminal justice system is broken and the courts are an instrument of oppression. As such, this approach holds little appeal for most Americans. Instead, the White House courts the public (and conservative lawmakers) by portraying the costs of justice and imprisonment as exorbitant, representing overreaching government power and cost.
But isn’t this true? Isn’t our criminal justice system a terrible failure? Aren’t innocent people regularly put on death row? Aren’t casual pot users incarcerated for years? No. Compared to the justice system of any nation, our system is the very model of, well, justice. Of course mistakes are sometimes made, but we can hardly cease any human endeavor because we are incapable of reaching perfection in all ways, under all circumstances and at all times. The hapless, minor drug user trope is, as is most of what the Obama Administration says, a lie.
This position goes well beyond the valid (and obvious) argument that courts sometimes make mistakes. Instead, this campaign is an indictment of the justice system itself, particularly mandatory sentencing guidelines and laws against large-scale, even violent, drug trafficking—the actual violation that constitutes fully 99.5 percent of convicted federal drug offense prisoners, now being considered for release.
Rather than the costs of crime, in lives as well as dollars, the reform effort denounces the costs of incarceration, arguing that sentences offer little in the way of criminal deterrence, their thesis supported by stories of low-level, non-violent offenders swept up in punitive zeal because of a single misstep.
Empirically, this crafted profile is easy to dismiss. A cost calculus must look not only at deterrence, but the benefits of crimes prevented through the incarceration of habitual offenders. Not only are drug crimes warranting federal prison overwhelmingly serious trafficking offense, large numbers of offenders have career criminal backgrounds. A Department of Justice study of thousands of similar state prison inmates shows the magnitude of their criminal career. These inmates had been arrested an average of 11 times before being incarcerated, and fully 77 percent of those released re-offended within five years. (Including prisoners past their so-called criminal prime; of those inmates over age forty, 69 percent re-offended.)
Moreover, besides the violent consequences of drug trafficking more broadly (such as the record 10,500 Americans dead from heroin overdoses in the latest measured year), many of these offenders engaged directly in armed and violent criminal acts during their trafficking offense.
This should be no surprise. Particularly on the federal level, deadly and barbaric violence in the pursuit of the drug trade is the order of the day rather than an anomaly.
That is, for every incarcerated inmate, the odds are overwhelming that they have left a path of shattered victims, and the only impediment to their creating yet more has been their incarceration. The point is that whatever the costs of providing justice, the cost of the crimes themselves, both those already committed and those forestalled, is greater in both human and economic terms.
Yet another reminder: when they’re in jail, they aren’t preying on the innocent. This is far more important than one might realize on first and transient consideration.
Other arguments are that the money saved by releasing prisoners will somehow stop crime through investment in wages or education, or allow us to pursue the ‘truly dangerous’ felons. A provision of a Senate bill under consideration proposes using money ‘saved’ from incarceration to ‘combat gangs of national significance.’ Law enforcement knows this is no strategy. We are to release those currently apprehended, so that we can more effectively pursue yet others? And do what with them when caught, courts and prisons having been compromised?
This is particularly pernicious nonsense. Remember that for Obamites, and now, Democrats in general, “investment,” means “unbelievably huge sums of money flushed down the progressive boondoggle toilet.” The suggestion that the Federal Government so carefully tracks every penny of taxpayer money that a dollar saved via less incarceration will be immediately routed and used to better effect elsewhere is utter lunacy. Billions are thrown away on the nebulous “waste and abuse,” politicians are eternally swearing to abolish. As with virtually all of Progressivism, these ideas fail because they ignore human nature, in this case, the nature of criminals, particularly felons.
Felons are not, with very few exceptions, innocent, normal, well-intentioned people who just happened to have bad luck imposed upon them by evil forces beyond their control or imagining. They are not every day, amiable folks who made a single mistake, the kind of people one would be delighted to have marry their daughter. They are deeply flawed human beings, people who, for the most part, care little for the feelings and lives of others. Name the character flaw, they have it.
Some—more than most imagine, but thankfully few—are true sociopaths. If they are not yet murderers, they just haven’t had the right impulse or seen their chance. They care nothing—nothing—for others, and might hand back a dropped billfold one second, and slash the woman that dropped it to ribbons the next. The only way to protect society from such people is to kill them, or second best, to lock them up—forever—and throw away the key. When they die, their ashes should be burned, burned again, burned again, exorcized, burned again, and buried with radioactive waste. Yet for most such, execution is not a possibility, and for most, life in prison is likewise out. They are too often released even though every sentient being involved knows they’ll leave a bloody trail of wounded and dead in their paths.
This, not the fact that we put such people in prison, is the true indicator of failure in our criminal justice system.
What puts people in prison? With the rare exception of otherwise law-abiding people who experience an inexplicable break with sanity and commit murder or some other heinous crime, the people in prison have earned their cells through a very long process of hurting the innocent. Keep in mind that felonies are generally crimes punishable by more than a year in prison, while misdemeanors are punishable by less then a year in jail. Misdemeanor sentences are normally served in county jails. Anyone serving more than a few days in a county jail normally has a substantial record of serious misdemeanor offenses. Similarly, anyone sentenced to prison normally has a long—compiled over many years–record of felony offenses. Someone with a record of multiple felony convictions normally has many more that were plea-bargained down to misdemeanors. Keep in mind too that career criminals commit far more crimes than their records of convictions will ever reflect. They get away with a great many crimes before they’re caught and convicted for one.
Progressive reformers may have their beliefs concerning our inherent goodness and corrigibility without prison. But responsible policy and genuine political leadership require a more realistic understanding of our duties to past, present, and future victims.
Criminals need not be sociopaths to wreck havoc. Consider the case of a car burglar I once arrested. He was the ringleader of a gang of burglars, people who would run in packs of 2-10. They would, in a single evening, break, and break into, as many as 30 vehicles, stealing primarily stereo systems, but usually, any and everything else they could get their hands on. Often, they would do more damage, in sheer repair time and costs, than the dollar value of the property they stole. They might get away with $2000 dollars in stereo gear, but do $5000 damage to the car in the process tearing up upholstery, dashboards, breaking windows, etc.
In a single night, this little gang could easily commit 200 felonies.
So what, you say? It’s only money? It’s not like they were hurting people?
Most Americans don’t have spare thousands sitting around just waiting to replace property stolen or destroyed by criminals. They work hard for such things; often, they cherish them. They’re emotionally invested in them. Crime always has psychological effects. Some people can shrug such things off; for others, the effects are debilitating.
Insurance companies generally will not replace things at 100% value, and for virtually everyone, deductibles are involved. Damaged vehicles have to be repaired, depriving victims of their vehicles, often for days or weeks. Add to the incalculable value of personal items stolen from vehicles, cameras and their irreplaceable images, computers and their irreplaceable data, mementos, things criminals throw away as useless, and we begin to understand that the dollar estimates listed on police forms are far from the total cost.
Because I specialized in catching vehicle burglars and knew well my business, I could calculate such figures with a high degree of accuracy, but most police officers cannot. As a result, loss figures taken from police reports are generally quite low. The increase in insurance premiums is always substantial, affecting everyone, whether the victim of a car burglar or not.
To be sure, they hurt people, thousands of people. It’s not just property either.
One small burglar offshoot of the main group set out one night to steal an exterior rear view mirror from a small SUV. One of the burglars had the same make and model with a broken mirror. Instead of visiting a junkyard and picking up a cheap replacement, they decided to commit multiple felonies. They were criminals. That’s what they do.
So three of them found a suitable SUV and decided removing the entire door would be faster than removing the mirror. They were in the process when the owner came home and pulled into the driveway. The three of them scrambled under a nearby vehicle, one of them shaking with methamphetamines and fear, and holding a loaded 9mm handgun he stole from a vehicle an hour earlier.
Fortunately, the owner didn’t notice the door of his SUV standing open an inch. He went inside and to his amazement, found the missing door the next morning. He’s fortunate, because the shaking burglar later confessed to me that if the owner had seen them, hiding under the car only feet away, he planned to shoot the guy.
The idiot broke the mirror trying to remove it from the door—the mirror he was willing to commit murder to obtain. I recovered the mirror, and the door, from the creek where he threw them both. I recovered the handgun too.
The moral is simple, so simple it must inevitably be incomprehensible to Progressives: when I identified and arrested those burglars, the vehicle burglary rate instantly dropped about 60%. When the ringleaders went to prison, it dropped another 25%. That’s in just one town, in a single state, one group of criminals.
That’s the primary value of prisons.
Where any individual is wrongfully convicted of a crime, there is an individual solution. Emptying our prisons to obtain Democrat voters isn’t a solution, it’s a plague, and like a real contagion, will cause enormous damage, even death.
UPDATE, 04-27-16, 1700 CST:
Progressives are always and everywhere desperate to control the terms of the debate—every debate—which means our very language. Here’s the latest, berserk example from the Attorney General of the United States, Loretta Lynch, via Powerline:
In an effort to help young people involved in the justice system find jobs and housing, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) today announced $1.75 million for Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) and nonprofit legal service organizations to address the challenges justice-involved individuals face when trying to find work and a place to call home. …
‘The future of our nation depends upon the future of our young people – including young people who have become involved with our justice system,’ said Attorney General Lynch. ‘By helping justice-involved youth find decent jobs and stable housing after they return home, these critical grants provide a foundation for a fresh start and offer a path towards productivity and purpose. In the months ahead, the Department of Justice will continue helping justice-involved youth enrich their lives and improve our country.
It is these “justice-involved youth” President Obama seeks—and adults, of course–to release from prison for the great benefit of us all.