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The Difficulties of Having an Honest Debate

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One of the very neat things about Crime and Consequences is the opportunity to have an honest debate.  Within normal rules civil discourse, debate is welcome here, and there have been numerous enlightening debates about, for example, the death penalty, sentencing, judicial selection, and police behavior.

Of late, I have been blogging less, and Kent's entry today, Known Felon With Gun Goes on Shooting Rampage, reminds me why. 

The entry highlights something we have seen again and again:  A known, dangerous criminal who could have and should have been in jail was set free; does dreadful and, in this and other cases, lethal damage; yet the drumbeat about how we have a problem with overincarceraion goes on without a hitch, simply whistling past the huge and massively documented costs of underincarceration.

It's simply impossible to have a worthwhile debate with people who will not so much as acknowledge, much less take seriously or give a forthright accounting of, the costs their policies will impose and are imposing.
Here's the nasty truth.  In the present system, and any alternative system the country realistically might adopt, some sentences will be too long and others won't be long enough.  We have too many differences about values (e.g., systemic vs. personal responsibility), and  --  more importantly for present purposes  --  too little knowledge about who will be dangerous and who won't  --  for a simply ideological position to prevail among serious people.

Notwithstanding this, a foot-stomping ideology is all we get from academia, the media, and other components of the Left:  We're overincarcerated.  Period.  It's a national disgrace and a crisis.  Period.  If you don't sign on to that, you are, as I was once called in Salon, at best a "better educated Archie Bunker."  You're a racist.  You're willfully blind to the "plight" of criminals, who are uniformly portrayed as victims rather than victimizers.  Close to 100% of the crime stories I read in the mainstream media say far more about the handicaps (real and fabricated) of the criminal than about the often gruesome and heartbreaking injuries he inflicts.  

No honest person taking my general view of crime and punishment can maintain that the more severe sentencing system a bi-partisan consensus adopted in the late Eighties and Nineties never imposes overly harsh sentences.  Of course it does  --  as any system will, errors in both bedrock judgment and in the application of judgment being inevitable in human life.

An honest debate  --  that is, the kind of debate a person with scarce time is willing to engage  --  will acknowledge that the real question is not whether the system will make mistakes, but about (1) the nature of the harm mistakes will create, and (2) the more nearly correct choice of who should bear the cost of inevitable error.

People on the Left simply will not engage in a sustained, serious discussion of these questions  --  meaning, for me, that it has become less and less worthwhile trying to engage them.

I suspect that most of the reason the Left walks past these questions is that it knows honest answers are not to its advantage.*  The harm of an excessive sentence is that the prisoner will spend more time behind bars than, in justice, he should.  The harm of an insufficient sentence is what we see today from Kent's entry; what we have seen dozens if not hundreds of times in New Scan items; and in the bloodsoaked Wendell Callahan early release scandal (which has yet to be covered in the national press).

When you've been incarcerated for too long, you still have a life left.  When you're released too early, time and again we have seen that your next victim doesn't.  There have been, and will be, hundreds of such victims.  I believe all of them are still dead.

As to whom should bear the risk of sentencing error, can there be doubt?  Ask yourself this:  Who caused the system to have to deal with the crime in the first place?  The guy who wanted a fast buck, ya think?  Who was better positioned to avoid the risks of error  --  the criminal, who made his own choices, or the victim (like those noted in Kent's entry) who never had a choice?

I have spent years looking for the Left honestly to engage these questions, and have now pretty much concluded it's not going to happen.  What we'll see instead is one academic or think-tank conference after the next, in which the participants vie with one another, not to come to grips with the conundrums of inevitable error, or even with basic facts (such as that violent crime has been growing at a startlng pace for close to three years), but instead settle for a competition about who can stomp his foot the hardest and denounce Amerika the loudest.


*Other causes are dishonesty and deep-down contempt for the country.

9 Comments

Is Kentucky Gov Matt Bevin, based on his recent Fox News commentary, an example of a person on the Left who cannot honestly engage these questions?

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin: Justice reform is real and conservative governors are leading the way
http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2017/11/15/kentucky-gov-matt-bevin-justice-reform-is-real-and-conservative-governors-are-leading-way.html

While you are now giving up on discourse with the Left, it seem a lot more folks on the Right are urging reform. Can you have an honest debate with them? I will pay to watch it, and particularly enjoy the prospect of a great honest debate over these issues with any need or opportunity for Left-bashing.

Douglas,

Which part of the article you link to relates to Bill's question? I cannot find a line in their that promotes a specific notion to do away with MMs, shorten sentences, or let "non-violent" drug offenders back on the street.

We can argue all day about whether some felons should get their records expunged after five years in order to facilitate getting a job, whether we should reduce regulatory barriers for hiring felons, how much and what kind of training they should receive, and how to hopefully help felons become productive members of society after release, which is what Bevin writes about. It seems to be completely different than what Bill is and has been talking about.

Tarls, this part of the Bevin commentary sounded to me like a pitch to reduce prison populations (and in terms comparable to what I hear from reform advocates on the Left all the time):

"For years Kentucky had maintained an outdated, 'lock-em-up and throw away the key' approach. That was unsustainable from both a societal and financial cost and we were determined to shake up the status quo....

"We can no longer afford to cling to the outdated idea that prison alone is the only way to hold people accountable for their crimes. Instead, we need to take a smarter, more measured approach to criminal justice....

"In the midst of national division in many fronts, a community of conservative governors are uniting to build trust and offer real solutions to some of our country’s greatest problems. Transforming our justice systems, supporting policies that safely reduce our jail and prison populations, putting ex-offenders back to work, creating safer communities — doing what is right for the people we represent is not a political statement."

I believe Bill here is railing against the Left's unwillingness to debate honestly the costs of policies that seek to "safely reduce our jail and prison populations." So, I wonder if he think Gov Bevin is being dishonest in his advocacy.

Notably, Bevin was with Iowa's Gov and Marc Levin discussing these issues in Texas today:
http://www.justiceactionnetwork.org/governors-forum/ I was in class, so I did not get to watch the event, but I feel I can safely predict that the event did not include "a competition about who can stomp his foot the hardest and denounce Amerika the loudest."

I agree 100% that reinvigorating re-entry is a great ideas and I would love to hear that everyone at C&C agree with everything that Gov Bevin has to say. But I do think he is advocating reductions in sentences and prison populations based on what I have quoted above.

I will join this debate after the federalist society convention ends. Sorry for the delay.

No rush, and I am eager to hear what was said during the "rising crime" session.

As reported in September:
A preliminary review of today's just-released FBI Uniform Crime Report for 2016 shows that last year violent crime rate per 100,000 people increased in 33 states, decreased in 14 states, and stayed about the same in 3 states and the District of Columbia. This drove the national violent crime rate up by 3.2%. The biggest increases were seen in Hawaii (24.8%), Arizona (14.6%), Illinois (12.6%), Wyoming (10.2%), Michigan (9.1%), and Virginia (9%). States which have enacted major sentencing reforms such as Texas, California, and Washington saw increases. California suffered increases in every category of violent crime. Among states with large populations, Florida stood out with a 6.9% drop in violent crime. Nationally, both the rates of homicide and rape were the highest seen in 8 years.

For you folks in the back: States which have enacted major sentencing reforms such as Texas, California, and Washington saw increases. California suffered increases in every category of violent crime.

These crime data are what, I presume, in part lead Bill to lament dishonesty from folks on the left when they claim, over and over, that there are many ways to SAFELY reduce jail/prison populations.

But these realities, in turn, prompted me to ask about KY Gov Bevan and his Fox News commentary. In that commentary, Bevin is speaking as a GOP/conservative governor and is urging fellow governors to join him in "supporting policies that safely reduce our jail and prison populations." I want to hear from Bill whether he thinks Bevin --- and a seemingly ever-growing number of notable folks on the right --- is being dishonest when asserting that it is possible to safely reduce our jail and prison populations.

Bill point in this post, as I see it, is not merely that the Left promotes bad policies but that they do so in a dishonest way. So I am asking whether thinks Gov Bevin is similarly acting dishonestly. And I do not mean this as a "gotcha" question --- I am genuinely interested in what folks on the right may think is driving a divide on the right on some of these issues.

Here is another recent example of folks writing from the "right on crime" perspective praising reforms in Georgia that, inter alia, shortened sentences for lower-level offenders:

By Newt Gingrich and Kelly McCutchen Guest Columnists
Column: Criminal sentencing reform in Georgia has become national model
http://chronicle.augusta.com/opinion/opinion-columns/2017-11-18/column-criminal-sentencing-reform-georgia-has-become-national

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