Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Conservatives And The Prison Problem

David Frum, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, mulls the problem posed by the American penal system, noting that although it has helped to achieve lower crime rates over the past few decades, those gains have come at enormous social and financial costs. He wonders if there might be any way to rehabilitate some offenders so that we don't need to keep them locked up.

Not necessary, I say. We can vastly reduce our incarceration rate by making just a few simple changes to the way we punish certain crimes. First, we can end the War on Drugs, with its draconian policy of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Long prison sentences for small-time dealers don't reduce the amount of narcotics that get sold in the U.S., but they do put plenty of relatively harmless people (small-time dealers, addicts and the like) in jail for years at a time. I'm not saying we need to totally decriminalize drug use - with the exception of marijuana, I think that's a problematic proposition with most drugs - but we don't need to punish someone who's caught with a few grams of meth or crack cocaine by locking them up for 20 years at a stretch. Second, we can reduce the use of prison time as our preferred method of punishment. The primary advantage of prison is that it isolates convicted criminals from society and prevents them form perpetrating more crime. When dealing with genuine psycopaths like rapists, murderers, and armed robbers, this is a necessity, but for many non-violent offenders, the benefit gained from doing so may not be worth the costs. A more efficient probation system, better manner of house arrest, etc. may work just as well, at lower cost. UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman, who has spent much of his career studying this problem and recently wrote a well-reviewed book on the topic, has many interesting suggestions along these lines, some of which he outlines in this article.

When it comes to crime policy, I don't think "lock 'em up and throw away the key" is a sufficient philosophy for conservatives to have; it permits both of too much potential for abuse of government power and an outrageous amount of wasteful spending. Enforcing the laws of society is a necessary duty of the government under anyone's conception, but I don't see why so many on the right remain committed to a simplistic, grossly inefficient, and costly way of doing so. I hope that the fact that serious right-of-center thinkers like Frum are considering the question means that mainstream conservatism may start moving off its dogma on this issue - but the fact that the Palinites have denounced him as a pointy-headed intellectual only one step removed from a liberal makes me doubt it.


  1. Great topics as of late! I have friends also working in both the legal and academic worlds on the problem of incarceration. I 100% agree that the mandatory sentencing of drug crimes is an incredibly bad use of resources. In addition, there's actually very little evidence that the drop in crime in the 90s had anything to do with incarceration, perhaps explaining 10% or less in the drop. (Check out the well-respected book "Punishment and Inequality" by Bruce Western). High incarceration also has very bad societal consequences.

    (citation: Info/brief summary of the book I mentioned

    it creates a hidden racial problem...

  2. oops, did not finish that last part, is that the prison boom has created a hidden racial problem, as the prison boom has impacted minority communities much more than whites.

  3. Yeah. There was a very good article that I didn't link on the problem of race and incarceration, and I recall reading in several sources (one of them being "Freakonomics") that there are other, more compelling potential explanations for the drop in crime in the 1990s. I think it's likely that there may be several causes, as with any complicated social phenomenon - and I think this is another point on which political partisanship has failed us, as almost all Republicans (though hopefully this is changing) and a great many Democrats seem committed to defend their ideological positions on the issue to the death.

    Thanks again for the comments Val, nothing's better than hearing back from other people in a way that makes me think further on my own ideas. :)