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Refusing to Take Yes for an Answer

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I could not help but be struck by the juxtaposition of today's two major crime and punishment stories.  The first, which Kent has covered, is the Supreme Court's decision that overcrowding in California's prisons has caused constitutionally unacceptable conditions, and therefore prisoners by the thousand must be released from this overstuffed system.

The second, which oddly is getting less coverage, is that this same overstuffed system continues to produce remarkable reductions in the crime rate. This maintains a trend  --  which not coincidentally developed over the last two decades of "incarceration nation"  --  in which crime has dropped to the lowest level in fifty years.

What this means, specifically, is that, in the era of "incarceration nation," thousands fewer of our fellow citizens have been beaten, robbed, raped, swindled and yoked than was the case in the "compassionate" era of the sixties and seventies.

What is even more remarkable is that last year's dramatic crime reduction came at a time of continuing economic hardship and high unemployment.  This is most strange, since, as we have been lectured for years, it's economic hardship that produces crime (as opposed to, say, the nature of society's response).

No normal person thinks that prisoners should be deprived of baseline medical care; they can't be, period.  But we know now (as if we didn't before) that imprisoning people who commit crime produces less crime.  We therefore also know that releasing them will produce more crime  --  and the more released, the more crime is coming.  Refusing to acknowledge this fact is just flat-out dishonest.

2 Comments

"No normal person thinks that prisoners should be deprived of baseline medical care; they can't be, period."

I certainly think that the prisons are not obligated to provide very expensive care to prisoners, nor are they, in my mind, obligated to provide more than palliative care in many circumstances.

I think there's an interesting question underlying Bill's point. Could we spend our incarceration dollars more wisely? We could, of course, always spend more and incarcerate more people. Or we could focus money on drug and mental health courts for true addicts and people truly suffering from mental health problems and spend the savings on longer sentences for other offenders. (Note, I didn't say violent offenders because I find that distinction non-useful, burglary, car theft, etc . . . are certainly violent in a very real sense)

One of the problems I noted when I was a prosecutor is that we were shuffling off drug and low-level theft cases to short prison sentences only to have those folks return. I also noted a number of defendants who were profoundly mentally ill just sort of shuffled through the municipal system. I think there is room to make strong efforts in these areas and maintain strong(er) prison sentences for those that deserve them. The problem was with overcrowded courtrooms and dockets the really bad guys kind of just got shuffled to the middle with everyone else.

Federalist: Providing palliative only to prisoners seems unnecessarily cruel to me. And having the government decide whether a prisoners care is so expensive that we can just let them die seems sadly close to a "death panel." We lock people up because it makes us safe and they deserve it. We take care of people that are locked up because we believe in their continued dignity and continuously demonstrate why we are the ones who are not locked up. By the way, in Ohio prisoners pay co-pays for medical treatment through their prison accounts. This discourages prisoners from seeking non-routine medical care just because it's free (i.e. complaining about every sniffle, etc.)

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