In researching for this article I came across a perfect piece that summarized an attitude that existed in past decades about crime and punishment. We are faced with a challenge today where incarcerating too many less-violent crimes is taxing state budgets. This article shows that we got here because most people were more fearful than thoughtful in dealing with bad behaviors. Written by Wendy Kaminer for the Atlantic Monthly back in 1994, we see why being “tough on crime” was a signature element in conservative Republican platforms each election year
“If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who has been arrested. … There are, of course, more crime victims than criminal defendants, particularly among the voting public, so there are likely to be more conservatives than liberals on the subject of crime–many more. Polling data indicate that nearly 80 percent of the American public supports the death penalty in the absence of an alternative such as life without parole, and this in turn suggests that nearly 80 percent of Americans fear being murdered more than they fear being convicted of murder.
The hopeful notion that prisons might rehabilitate people has long been dismissed as naive, displaced by a belief in retributive justice and the demand that prisons serve as places of near permanent exile for the incorrigible among us. Some liberals still protest America’s uniquely high incarceration rate, tirelessly pointing out that we imprison more people per capita than any other country in the world,but a majority of Americans favor building more prisons, despite their cost, and believe that sentencing practices are excessively lenient.(emphasis mine)
[T]the drive to imprison more people for longer periods of time seems unstoppable, fueled not just by fury and fear but by a sense of resignation. It is as if all we can do is warehouse people until they die or are too old and decrepit to threaten anyone on the outside again.”
“Ronald Reagan [had a dark] view of criminality, which still holds popular appeal. There are no social solutions to crime, Reagan asserted in 1981, because crime is not a social problem; ‘it’s a problem of the human heart.’ Reagan cited what he viewed as a dual liberal fallacy about crime–the conviction that ameliorating poverty might reduce crime and the assumption that ‘there [is] nothing permanent or absolute about man’s nature.'”
The article is quite good and I encourage all to read it when they find time and compare the issue in terms of now and then.
I use these comments of Ms. Kaminer’s however to set up the premise that “tough on crime” has always been a mainstay of conservative politics and regardless of the social infraction, “if you do the crime you should do the time” in prison or jail. Cost wasn’t much of a factor in times past so building more prisons was always found acceptable to that mentality that was fearful and retributive toward malefactors.
But in today’s economic hard times when state budgets are struggling to correct deficiencies they created by cutting taxes too deep and spending on some projects that have not proven their worth over time, even the “tough on crime” crowd are re-thinking their views on prisons and incarcerations “in terms of some cost-benefit analysis”. So says ultra conservative Grover Norquist in a recent PBS NEWSHOUR interview with Judy Woodruff. Norquist was joined with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous on the program as they discussed this budgetary issue where they oddly found each other in agreement on how more and bigger prisons are not making our streets safer.
Jealous’ case was that the money being spent on prisons, trials and police work to incarcerate people where “more than half [of those] in prison right now are low-level, nonviolent drug offenders” could better serve the public elsewhere. The NAACP leader thinks that some of that money should go towards education that would impact lowering the prison population by removing those factors that push low-income juveniles toward drug use and selling drugs for an income.
Norquist on the other hand simply wants to reduce most of this ineffective spending in this area, concluding that perhaps Reagan was wrong. He conceded too that perhaps conservatives have been over-zealous in punishing some miscreants, especially those in ethnic groups that were found in low income housing districts and where schools were handicapped with poor teachers and programs that stem from poor funding.
Norquist appears to reject the premise Benjamin Jealous makes that when the “achievement gaps” are elevated in neighborhoods where drug crimes are prevalent, crime rates drop. “That achievement gap is largely a resource gap” Jealous says.“You look at the schools in these areas that have high incarceration rates, they tend to have high teacher turnover, they tend to have a very low level of high-quality teachers. They tend to not have computers. They have a hard time with A.P. books. They don’t have music. Sometimes, they don’t have even recess.”
“And so we say, look, it’s just sort of obvious that, if you put more money here, just to get these kids up to what the kids in the suburbs have, they would do much better. School would be a more engaging place. They would learn more. But you can also see that that’s where the money has been taken from.”
Norquist’s choice would be to allow that money state’s spend on prison and the legal mechanics that deal with drug related crimes go back to the tax payer. In other words, it isn’t important that the data that supports Jealous’s case is accurate. For Norquist it’s better that the tax payer choose how best to use this money for dealing with drug related crimes, as long as it’s done by the for-profit private sector – NOT government.
What sticks out here in this issue is the same one we are currently faced with as we try to address our deficit issues on the state and national levels. The anti-tax crowd Norquist is a part of wants to lower taxes, presuming that individuals will somehow collectively create a replacement that addresses this social problem at a cost-effective rate outside the purview of governments.
This may sound good to fiscal conservatives but in reality it has failed over the years as it relates to major social factors like crime, health and education, simply because people choose their own self-interests over the common good in most cases. The private sector is out of reach for low-income families at this level so unless they contribute to such better alternatives to incarceration, they are stuck with remaining in the status they currently are – filling the cells of local, state and federal jail cells.
Those who make the least have the least to offer in terms of financial contributions. Without a progressive system to pay for such socially useful programs as drug rehab and education, the wealthiest are likely to incur all of the costs and they too would balk at such an idea to defend their own self-interests. But the argument can be made that keeping crime under control IS in the self-interests of everyone, rich or poor.
Government is intended to serve the general welfare of the nation and to tax its citizens to provide for a good education and health care for all is as fundamentally necessary as it is to provide for it’s defense against foreign or domestic enemies and develop infrastructure to enable economic growth. Government abuse in the use of tax payer dollars is a legitimate concern, but to accept the self-serving notion that “government is not the solution to the problem” ignores the bigger abuses by the private sector that exploits tax payer contributions to the Treasury through subsidies and large tax cuts they benefit from while the rest of us struggle to survive.
I am glad to see this change in view of Norquist and hopefully others like him who now realize their earlier views were perhaps misplaced. The “tough on crime” stance has, in my opinion, damaged many lives that could have been more productive if allowed to work out their low-level drug issues in community projects that keep them close to their families and “normal” society; not with the serious and serial offenders of more violent crimes.
I would equally hope that they take time to reevaluate those other views of theirs that want to eliminate social and educational endeavors as they strive to lower state and federal budgets. Perhaps their wrong-headed thinking about building more and bigger jails to curtail crime will carryover to those views where they think depriving the most vulnerable in our society of basic needs will also pay dividends for society as a whole. Perhaps?