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Ivy League Nonsense

A common shtick in academic circles is to say something so counterintuitive, so shocking that it is guaranteed to get you some attention.  That appears to be the angle of Cornell law professor Joe Margulies.   Professor Margulies is very concerned about mass incarceration.  So much so that when asked who should be let out of prison he had this to say:

If the professor could pick one category of the incarcerated population to release today, he said it would likely be the people who committed very serious offenses and have been in prison for a long time.

Margulies didn't name any specific offenses, but if individuals sentenced to more than 25 years in prison were released today, it would certainly include those guilty of such crimes as sexual assault and murder. 

Even though it seems counterintuitive, Margulies insisted that releasing the longtime prison dwellers would not necessarily pose a threat to society. 

"The kind of person they were when they went into prison often just doesn't exist anymore," Margulies said. "Keeping them in prison offers no chance for redemption, and no one is a monster."

They're even the group that's least likely to recidivate, or wind back up in prison, he said. He added this is common knowledge for people familiar with the criminal-justice system -- but not so obvious to the average citizen.

From a 2014 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

  • About two-thirds (67.8%) of released prisoners were arrested for a new crime within 3 years, and three-quarters (76.6%) were arrested within 5 years. 
  • Within 5 years of release, 82.1% of property offenders were arrested for a new crime, compared to 76.9% of drug offenders, 73.6% of public order offenders, and 71.3% of violent offenders.
  • More than a third (36.8%) of all prisoners who were arrested within 5 years of release were arrested within the first 6 months after release, with more than half (56.7%) arrested by the end of the first year.
So in the technical sense the good professor is correct, violent offenders recidivate less than other types of offenders.  But the logical next question to ask is why might that be? 

That is because violent offenders spend more time incarcerated compared to other offenders and therefore do not have the same opportunity to commit new crimes.   Incarceration has well known incapacitating effects. 

Yet even when they are released, almost three quarters of violent offenders will commit new crimes, often violent crimes - as the BJS study shows.  And that matters.  To have your car stolen is frustrating; to be raped, beaten or murdered is to have your dignity, your humanity, even your life taken away. 

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