Friday, August 28, 2009

Criminal Justice Revisited

Mark Olmsted's first article on HuffPo caught my attention so immediately that I wrote about it here. So, naturally, I made sure to read his second as well.

Mr. Olmsted, once again, is taking on criminal justice... this time not so much the sole question of penal policy but the criminal justice system as a whole. Once again, he nails some very good points home very well.

I'll start with, perhaps, the least consequential portion of the piece... but one that casts a great deal of light on police culture and thinking:

"When LA Police Chief Bill Bratton recently announced his resignation, he trumpeted the fact that LA hadn't seen such a low crime rate since the 50s."

So, who else reads James Ellroy?

Ellroy is a novelist, of course, but there is a reason he chose the subject matter he did in 'L.A. Confidential.' The LAPD of the 1950s was a corrupt, brutal operation proud of its corruption and brutality. It marketed itself, nationally, as the model for the country's police departments even as it routinely violated its own due process in the interest of 'public safety' and senior officers financed their retirement packages with mob money.

That Bratton would identify himself with the LAPD of this era is a bit disturbing. It suggests that too many cops believe their own PR. I'm not really sure that's a good thing. Bratton was Rudy Giuliani's partner in cryptofascism in New York City, a police regime all too reminiscent of 1950s Los Angeles, and he was hired to bring that same style to Los Angeles. Who will Los Angeles hire next? I've heard they have some good cops in Singapore, with methods that might work well in the US...

From the LAPD, we move on to the media and to you and me in our living rooms:

"In the last 20 years, just as demographic trends have kicked in that probably explain most of the drop in crime, the local news culture of "if it bleeds it leads" has burgeoned. In any large media market, you could easily get the impression that crime has skyrocketed rather than gone down. Helicopter-filmed car chases will go on for an hour at a time, until we finally get a glimpse of the crazed meth-head as he jumps into traffic and police subdue him. The robbery of every 7/ll clerk is caught on tape, run over and over if there's a pistol-whipping. John Q. Public would doubtfully concur that his neighborhood is more Ozzie and Harriet than Beyond Thunderdome, even if the only crime he has personally been the victim of in the last decade is a stolen gym bag.

Ask people what they think the chances are that they will be hurt in a terrorist attack or get carjacked and they will give you massively inflated odds. This is the way the modern mind works. We are somehow convinced something we see on TV is more likely to happen to us. The irrational result is that the same person smoking 2 packs a day will be less panicked by the prospect of a fairly likely lung cancer than of catching a swine flu that has sickened 10 people 3 states away."

Which of course necessitates this modern philosophy of 'tough on crime' in our judicio-political system:

"The D.A.'s priority is not justice, it's a high conviction rate to run for office on."

This is one of the key facts of our system. We have transformed prosecuting attorneys into our future congressmen, and they know a good case or a lot of convictions will help them get there. Liberal Democrats need to be able to prove they aren't 'soft on crime', while conservative Republicans are always happy to have a strong 'law and order' record.

Then, of course, sometimes the judge is being paid off by the company that owns the prison.

The biggest solution to the problem of crime is socio-economic. Sharp divides in the standard of living between the rich and the poor, coupled with a consumer culture that values buyers over workers, create an atmosphere in which the 'have nots' want what the 'haves' have got all that more intensely. Crime even becomes a sideways form of social protest to some. Of course, because of the structure of our society, other members of the 'have nots' are the most convenient and available targets for such crime. So the 'crime problem' serves, in many ways, to reenforce the class structure.

Mr. Olmsted offers his solutions as well:

"It's unfortunate this is perceived as a liberal/conservative issue. Stressing education, drug treatment, and job placement isn't about "coddling" criminals, it's about expanding the tax base and reducing the very poverty that causes the vast majority of crime in the first place. Meanwhile, letting offenders out before the end of their sentences is a perfectly sane budgetary remedy, particularly if it keeps us from laying off teachers. Every dollar spent in the classroom is a dollar that won't have to be spent on a prison cell."

Some of you have read my own feelings about education policy but, despite my break from the conventional wisdom of 'more school better all time' that is now dominating our education debate, I certainly won't argue that early parole for non-violent drug offenders makes more sense than laying off teachers. I'll also note that I think presidential pardon for non-violent drug offenders serving life sentences because of 'three strikes' laws would be a more telling statement by the presidency on federal drug policy than anything else.

I also favor voluntary drug treatment programs and job placement services for parolees very strongly. For those who genuinely wish to quit, treatment is a far better option than jail. And the biggest quoted reason for recidivism is economic frustration with the difficulty of (re)assimilating into the workforce.

I don't agree that education and drug treatment are magic bullets. Strong statistical evidence suggests that most non-chemical drug treatment programs have exactly the same success rate as individuals quitting on their own. I am strongly against forced methadone treatment (in which an addictive drug is treated by forcing the addict to become addicted to a much more deadly and addictive drug) and I tend to consider that the statement 'treatment or jail' is not truly 'voluntary.' So, in my opinion, the only option that does not violate the rights of citizens is the one with the extremely low rate of success.

Likewise, with education, the idea of a one hundred percent college educated population is certainly seductive. However, consider this: if everyone graduating high school finished at least four years of college, would there be enough jobs requiring college degrees to go around? Someone would still end up working at McDonald's flipping our burgers or at Olive Garden. We'd have the best educated fast food service workers in the world... but I'm not sure that would lower crime rates. While poor schools and a dehumanizing education system certainly contribute to crime levels, I am not sanguine that fixing those problems will solve the crime problem. Consider that the most serious crime is frequently a 'business' run by' educated' people. Street gangs may be composed of high school dropouts (or they may not), but the people higher up the ladder probably have their diploma.

The real solution to non-violent drug-related crime is to legalize drugs. That is the real solution to most violent drug-related crime too.

All of that said, the increased availability of non-chemical drug treatment and job placement services for parolees is a desirable thing. It is also desirable for people to have the more informed and accurate picture of the criminal justice system offered by articles like Mr. Olmsted's than to learn everything they know about crime and punishment from the TV news or Russian novelists.

1 comment:

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