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When Hope Tramples Truth: Why Liberal Ideas on Crime Get Traction Even When We Know They Can't Be True

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Probably the single most frequently heard phrase in the debate about crime and punishment these days is "incarceration nation."  The phrase is used to undergird the idea that the United States over-incarcerates its population.  This tendency, it is said, is expensive, inhumane, inconsistent with our tradition of liberty, and out of touch with the rest of the Western world, which has much lower rates of imprisonment.

Usually left unmentioned, or barely mentioned, in the de-incarceration campaign is the fact that prison works.  As has frequently been documented on this blog, crime rates are now half or less of what they were a generation ago, when the incarceration rate started a steep climb.  We now have the lowest incidence of crime since the 50's and early 60's.

There is an ongoing dispute about how much of the spectacular drop in crime is due to imprisonment.  The eminent criminologist, the late James Q. Wilson, thought it's a quarter or more.  But even if that's an overestimate (and there are no neutral data indicating it is), it is still the case that, by any measure, we have had tens of thousands if not millions fewer crimes over the last few years  --  and thus tens of thousands or millions fewer crime victims  --  because we have imprisoned the people who would otherwise have been out victimizing them.  The crime tables here show that we have almost four million fewer serious crimes per year now than we had 20 years ago.

If Wilson is right, increased imprisonment is the cause of almost a million fewer serious crimes each year.  Even if he's only half right, it produced a half million fewer serious crimes annually.  Over five years, that's two and a half million fewer serious crimes.  This cannot be called anything other than an astonishing success.

So why do so many people, including not a few intelligent people, want to leave it in the dust? 
The answer, I think, is found in this New York Times piece (yes, that New York Times), with its revealing title, "When Hope Tramples Truth."  The article is not about the ascendancy of bad liberal ideas about crime; instead, it's about their ascendancy in other areas like the housing and financial crisis, confronting dictatorships abroad, and welcoming the much-heralded (at the time) "Arab spring."  (It also mentions, and seems to have been written to address, the current debate about gay marriage, a subject that is not the topic of this blog and as to which CJLF takes no position).  But its thinking fits exactly what seems to me to be the otherwise inexplicable determination to cashier an incarceration policy that has massively contributed to the ability of ordinary people to live in peace and safety.

Thus, the essay notes:

People interested in truth seek out those who disagree with them. They look for rival opinions, awkward facts and the grounds that might engender hesitation [in marching forth with liberal ideas]. Such people have a far more complicated life than the optimists, who rush forward with a sense of purpose that is not to be deflected by what they regard as the cavilings of mean-minded bigots.

Read that last phrase as "the cavilings of mean-mined law-and-order types" and you'll start to get the idea.

Imprisoning a human being is, to say the very least, unpleasant.  How much more cheerful it would be, for offenders and the rest of us, to think that something nicer  --  something like rehabilitation, community supervision, vocational education or a talking-to by a stern but understanding judge  --  will do the work necessary to keep us safe.  And, of course, sometimes those things will work.  But as a half century of history has taught us, not nearly as often as our liberal friends would like to think.

We know what works:  prison.  That this is unhopeful does not, regrettably, make it untrue.

 

1 Comment

A "healthy skepticism" is an invaluable trait in everyday life. It is indispensable in evaluating liberal ideas on crime and society.

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