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Smart for Criminals

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Kent has pretty much debunked today's release of the Constitution Project's "Smart on Crime" report  --  and I use the word "report" advisedly, since it's actually just the defense bar's wish list, and an old one at that.

The one thing I would add is that you can get the quick story on a "report" like this just from its vocabulary.  The phrase "Smart on Crime" always means a bunch of pro-criminal proposals.  In this sense, it's like the phrase "government investment," which always means handing over taxpayer money to constituencies favored by the party in power, or "revenue enhancement," which always means increased taxes.

The particularly noteworthy item about today's "report" is that it omits to mention  --  indeed, it intentionally obscures  --  the fact that we already know what is, in truth, "smart on crime," namely, punishing it.  The statistics are unanswerable.  As more and more criminals have been incarcerated over the last two decades, crime has plummeted to levels not seen in fifty years.  When the death penalty was reinstated and became actively used starting in the later 1980's, the murder rate likewise plummeted, and is now also at lows not seen in fifty years.

If "smart on crime" meant what a normal person would think it means, i.e., what works to reduce crime, we already know the answer:  When the crooks are in jail, they aren't robbing your house.  This is not exactly rocket science.  But the Constitution Project and its pals aren't about to tell you.  Instead, they're going to tell you the opposite.

It was because vocabulary is an excellent tip-off to defense double-talk that I started the "Dictionary for the Politically Incorrect," see, e.g., here, here and here.  The release of today's "report" makes me think I should crank it up again.

5 Comments

It is remarkable that this rehash of failed 60's era criminological theories still has currency.

One would think that Robert Martinson's seminal 1974 work on correctional rehabilitation--Nothing Works--has not been read by the Apologensia.

"It was because vocabulary is an excellent tip-off to defense double-talk that I started the "Dictionary for the Politically Incorrect..."

So much for civility and maturity.

I summarized my assessment of the "Smart on Crime" report by saying that it's a defense bar wish list.

Do you disagree? If so, why?

P.S. The personal characteristics of individual posters are not the subject of this blog. Please try to remain on subject.

I have not read this particular report, though I have read other reports that convince me that the more we incarcerate serious and violent felons, the more secure society will be. Nevertheless, there are moral limits to how many prisoners we can incarcerate. Overcrowded prisons in the United States are brutal and inhumane. We must always strive to seek alternatives to incarceration wherever possible.

The United States has the death penalty in name only, with a few token executions every so often to pretend that it does.

I take issue with your insinuation that the death penalty is the reason why homicide rates in the United States have reached historic lows over the past fifty years. Studies have shown that the death penalty is a very weak deterrent, and that each execution only deters about five murders.

Notwithstanding this reality, deterrence is a poor justification for the death penalty. Even some of the staunchest death penalty supporters will tell you that.

If deterrence is so critical, then we should restore capital punishment for all serious and violent felonies.

Thank you for your substantive response.

"Nevertheless, there are moral limits to how many prisoners we can incarcerate."

What are those limits, and how are they to be determined?

"Overcrowded prisons in the United States are brutal and inhumane."

The poor conditions in many prisons are due mostly (not entirely, but mostly) to the behavior of the inmates toward one another, rather than to the facilities per se. It is therefore inmate behavior that, as an initial matter, is in need of reformation.

"We must always strive to seek alternatives to incarceration wherever possible."

Hard to disagree with that, but I would want to know more about specifically what the alternatives are and what their track record has been in securing public safety. CJLF has found story after story in which soceity decided to adopt an "alternative to incarceration," only to see that an innocent person wound up paying the price for someone else's gauzy "compassion."

"The United States has the death penalty in name only..."

If that were true, the heated and often outraged nature of opposition to the DP in the USA would be misplaced and overdrawn.

"I take issue with your insinuation that the death penalty is the reason why homicide rates in the United States have reached historic lows over the past fifty years."

The human race has believed for its entire recorded existence that the incidence of crime is related to the punishment for it. The idea that the inter-related historical trends of murder and the death penalty, trends of at least half a century's standing, are meaningless, is far-fetched. You can have a coincidence for a few years or from place to place. You cannot have it for 50 years over the country as a whole.

I am not aware of any other area in criminal law where serious people argue that the incidence of crime is unrelated to the severity of punishment. If you know of any, I'd be interested to find out what it is.

"Studies have shown that the death penalty is a very weak deterrent, and that each execution only deters about five murders."

Five is at the low end of the studies, but I'll assume that figure arguendo.

If we are saving five innocent people each time we execute a murderer, then, to my way of thinking, to FAIL to execute him is a moral error of simply astounding proportions. This can be seen quickly by simply stating the alternative: That we decline to excute the killer, knowing that five innocent people who would otherwise have had their chance at life will be robbed of it.

Yikes.

"If deterrence is so critical, then we should restore capital punishment for all serious and violent felonies."

There might be a few serious people who believe this, but I am not one of them. I agree with you to this extent: Some non-homicide offenses should be subject to the DP (such as espionage in wartime, attempted acts of lethal terrorism against the civilian population, and aggravated child rape (see, e.g., Justice Alito's dissent in Kennedy v. Louisiana)). However, applying the DP to "all" serious and violent felonies would, in too many cases, be disproportionate.

It is true, as you say, that it would provide increased deterrence. But while deterrence is an important reason supporting the DP, it is not the principal one. Justice is. It would be unjust, as disproportionate, to apply the DP as broadly as mere deterrence would suggest.

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