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The High Cost of Letting Criminals Go

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Jason Riley has this piece in the WSJ  with the above title:

Why the fate of criminals should matter more than the fate of crime victims is a question that went largely unasked, let alone answered, during last week's bipartisan celebration of President Obama's decision to release dozens of individuals from prison and push for looser sentencing guidelines.
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Higher black incarceration rates reflect higher black crime rates, but like many liberal critics of "mass incarceration" the president would rather focus on the behavior of police and prosecutors, not the behavior of the young black men responsible for so much lawbreaking. Not surprisingly, the poor and working-class blacks who are the primary victims of black criminality tend to have different priorities.
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Occasionally, an honest liberal, like the one who taught Mr. Obama at Harvard Law School, will state the obvious. "The most lethal danger facing African Americans in their daily lives," wrote Prof. Randall Kennedy in these pages 21 years ago, "is not white, racist officials of the state, but private, violent criminals, typically black, who attack those most vulnerable to them without regard for racial identity."
Mr. Obama sprinkled his speech with repeated references to the "nonviolent" and "low-level" offenders we presumably lock up for too long and are safe to release early. But the record of predicting which convicts will turn a new leaf is nothing to brag about. A 2002 Justice Department report tracked the three-year recidivism rate of 91,000 "nonviolent" property offenders who had been released nationally in 1994. Among those released, "21.9% were rearrested for violent crimes, including 726 murders, 637 rapes, 5,735 robberies, and 12,475 assaults," wrote Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "Interestingly, car thieves, which represented just over 10% of all the offenders released, were rearrested for committing more than 1/3 of the murders and a disproportionate number of other violent crimes."
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Some conservatives share the president's concern that maintaining a large prison population is too costly. "Taxpayers are picking up the tab," said Mr. Obama. "Every year, we spend $80 billion to keep folks incarcerated." But too costly compared with what? The issue is not the price tag per se but whether keeping criminals separated from society is less expensive than setting them free. What is the price of higher crime rates--additional robberies and assaults and rapes and murders and drug abuse?

Proponents of alternatives to incarceration seem to have little interest in assessing the cost of those alternatives. They also are reluctant to link higher incarceration rates to lower crime rates. Still, the sentencing reforms of the 1980s worked. As more criminals were removed from society and sent away for longer periods, crime plummeted. The 1990s saw declines of between 23% and 44% for homicide, rape, robbery aggravated assault, burglary, auto theft and larceny. The benefits of this reduction in criminality were not spread evenly throughout society. The poor benefited more, and the black poor benefited the most.

President Obama wants to send criminals back home sooner rather than later and then go easy on future lawbreakers, but it's hard to see how that will leave these neighborhoods better off.

1 Comment

Hits the nail on the head.

The problem is that overly draconian punishments (e.g., lifetime SRO for relatively benign statutory rape) can, when propagandized, degrade our support for harsh sentences when warranted. Additionally, police misconduct, which, shall we say, isn't the biggest priority of many prosecutors can have life-ruining consequences for completely innocent people.

Combine sophistry and cynicism on the part of opinion makers (like President Obama) and people's natural sense of fairness, you get otherwise intelligent people buying this nonsense.

As for Obama's clemencies---I think the right way to look at it is that with all of Obama's fulmination against the system (you almost think he's going to say "The Man"), he's only found a handful that merit release, and this from some really stiff sentences.

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