The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

May 8, 2008

Crime and (more) punishment, the outstanding Wall Street Journal opinion site, has discovered something it calls the “Fox Butterfield effect,” named for the New York Times reporter who writes stories of a theme noted in this headline: “Despite Drop In Crime, An Increase In Inmates.”

Butterfield’s inability to put cause and effect in the right order has been passed on to others at his newspaper. The Times reported April 23 that the U.S. has the most prisoners of any country in the world*, which reporter Adam Liptak reported reflects “
a relatively recent and now entirely distinctive American approach to crime and punishment. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.”

* Well, uh, there’s one little inaccuracy there: The term “prisoner” doesn’t include a category the U.S. doesn’t have but the non-free countries do: political prisoners. And, of course, those countries that imprison people for political crimes, such as China, don’t report how many political prisoners they have.

Liptak did manage to observe something Butterfield traditionally missed:

There is little question that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime, though there is debate about how much.

Criminologists and legal experts here and abroad point to a tangle of factors to explain America’s extraordinary incarceration rate: higher levels of violent crime, harsher sentencing laws, a legacy of racial turmoil, a special fervor in combating illegal drugs, the American temperament, and the lack of a social safety net. Even democracy plays a role, as judges — many of whom are elected, another American anomaly — yield to populist demands for tough justice.

Wisconsin is a good example of the last point. In the late 1990s, some legislators proposed “truth in sentencing” laws that were to take place in two parts — parole was to be eliminated, which meant that prisoners would have to serve their actual sentence, but sentences would then be reduced so that criminals would serve the same amount of time they were serving before. State law at the time set the first date of parole eligibility at one-fourth of the sentence; if you were sentenced to five years in prison, your first parole eligibility date came after one year and three months. Criminals who received a life sentence got first parole eligibility after 20 years.

On the way to their two-part “truth in sentencing” plan, part two disappeared thanks to legislators who figured out that voting to reduce sentences would be campaign fodder for their opponents in the next election. Prisons and county jails have gotten considerably more crowded since the beginning of 2000, as prison sentences stayed the same but parole disappeared — more than 30 percent beyond capacity according to a two-year-old estimate.

You may notice that there is not a public clamor to empty out Wisconsin’s prisons and county jails — or prisons and jails anywhere else in the U.S. The voting public remembers what happened when more enlightened crime and criminal justice policies were enacted in the 1960s and early 1970s — crime rates shot upward. Imprisonment rates have increased from the mid-’70s onward until today, the U.S. has 2.3 million criminals behind bars, or 751 in prison for every 100,000 people, or 1 in 100 Americans.

The U.S. has one of the higher violent crime rates in the world, but “relatively low” nonviolent crime rates. Still, the Times story notes, someone convicted of burglary serves an average of 16 months in prison here, vs. seven months in England and five months in Canada. The number of people in prison for drug crimes has ballooned from 40,000 in 1980 to almost 500,000 now. Add it all up, and between 1981 and 1996, while the imprisonment rate increased, the crime rate decreased — an obvious cause-and-effect to almost everyone.

Crime and punishment is a no-brainer issue to all but the most liberal politician. The latter category includes former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Louis Butler, who discovered that being tagged as “Loophole Louie” was not a ticket to winning an election, even an election to a judicial seat that focuses much more on civil justice issues than criminal justice issues. One important reason Bill Clinton was able to convince a plurality of voters twice that he was not a typical liberal Democrat was his support of the death penalty. During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton dramatically flew back to Arkansas to sign the death warrant for a man sentenced to death for killing a police officer.

This appears to be one of those “issues” that attracts the attention of the U.S.-is-bad crowd and advocates on a particular political issue (for instance, drug legalization) and no one else.
Indeed, a better argument is that not enough people are in prison — or at least, not enough people who commit such crimes as drunk driving. Had, for instance, Mark M. Benson been in jail for his third-offense drunk driving conviction, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to now be facing three counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a motor vehicle and other charges. And there’s the case of the two men who will be spending, respectively, three and 1½ years in prison after they were convicted of their 10th drunk driving charges. How otherwise can you stop someone who apparently can’t be rehabilitated or otherwise prevented from driving drunk? (For that matter, to use an example of the Times, how do you stop someone who apparently can’t be rehabilitated or otherwise prevented from passing bad checks?)

Wisconsin has always been thought of as a state with a low crime rate, but that’s not the case anymore in the state’s two largest cities — Milwaukee, which has crime rates higher than the national average in most categories, and Madison, which is seeing its crime rate increasing. Wisconsin and Illinois are the only states that ban concealed carrying of firearms (Gov. James Doyle keeps vetoing proposals the Legislature passes). If the state isn’t going to allow people to protect themselves, then the people have a reasonable expectation that the police and courts will actually do their jobs, and legislators who want to remain legislators realize that.

The argument can be made that the statute books are too large in such areas as whatever aspect of the war on drugs you don’t like. That, however, is an issue for our elected representatives in Congress and the Legislature to address, because they create the laws; the police and courts enforce them. Those who enforce drug laws will tell you that prison sentences are essential for those convicted of drug crimes to try to reduce the demand for drugs and because the drug trade leads to other crimes.

The U.S. has a higher crime rate most likely because we have more freedom than most countries. I don’t think Americans are willing to exchange our criminal justice system and our rights for, say, Russia’s, even if Russia has a lower crime rate. At the same time, people want to be protected from criminals (despite the claims of “experts,” the number of people who believe criminals of any kind can be rehabilitated seems to be dropping like a rock, perhaps because we keep reading about repeat criminals, such as Benson, who now has, authorities allege, killed three people). To date almost no one has complained about the expense of housing prisoners, since the best way to be protected from criminals is to keep them out of society. Until the majority of voters change their minds, they’ll prefer to keep criminals away from themselves and their loved ones and neighbors.

Incidentally: The new mayor of London is leading an effort to pursue a “zero-tolerance” approach to crime, including the hiring of more police. Great Britain, which bans handguns, has been weathering a crime spree involving not guns, but knives.

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