Monday, January 30, 2012

The Caging of America

Via Claire, I saw this morning a rather long article on the extremely high rate of incarceration that Americans have grown used to.

The article goes off in too many directions to fisk here with any degree of thoroughness, and I strongly suggest you go read it yourself. A few points, though...

First, it does point out one horrifying explanation for the three-fold increase in prison population (per 100,000) in the past thirty years:
a growing number of American prisons are now contracted out as for-profit businesses to for-profit companies. The companies are paid by the state, and their profit depends on spending as little as possible on the prisoners and the prisons. It’s hard to imagine any greater disconnect between public good and private profit: the interest of private prisons lies not in the obvious social good of having the minimum necessary number of inmates but in having as many as possible, housed as cheaply as possible. No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:

Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.

Brecht could hardly have imagined such a document: a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.
Further on, though, it raises (and purports to answer) a question that has always interested me: What accounts for the dramatic decrease in violent crime in this country since the 'seventies? People in favor of the Prison State point to the dramatic increase in prison population, and ask "what's the problem?" In the context of the article, it's an interesting question.

The reason it's interesting is that different interest groups point to different possible causes for the decrease in violent crime. Gun-rights advocates, of course, point to the increase in concealed carry and its social acceptability. Predators find other lines of work, say these folks, because it's safer to do so. Maybe, to some extent.

Except the last part of the article spends a lot of time examining the violent crime rate in New York City, which has decreased at a rate roughly twice that of the rest of the country, and as we all know you're safer getting caught with a knapsack full of crack in NYC than with a handgun. Gun ownership certainly doesn't have anything to do with violent crime rates in NYC, or it would be through the roof. This is the principal reason I've always been very leery of using violent crime stats as an argument in favor of the right to keep and bear weapons - I hate it when anti-rights people misuse statistics, and I'd hate to get caught doing it myself.

And as the article points out at length, rates of incarceration don't seem to have anything to do with it, either, because the incarceration rate is lower in NYC than the national average.

So why, exactly is the incarceration rate so high, and why are so many of the prisoners inside for non-violent crimes?

Mostly, it seems, because it makes certain people feel better. And (the article doesn't go here) maybe this is one of those things Ayn Rand was right about:
There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.


Anonymous said...

I think the "for profit" prisons are simply a whipping boy. They are not the problem. The citizens were quite unhappy about being robbed and murdered by felons that our system let go or sentenced to time served. So they pushed the legislators to require real jail time for real crimes. Hence more people are in jail and, suprise, suprise, crime rates are down.

To save money the "for profit" jails have become popular. Although it takes the sting out of the "for profit" insult once you realize that the government "for debt" jails cost us more. Remember the opposite of "for profit" is not "non-profit" it is "for loss".

Joel said...

"For profit" is not an insult unless you choose to take it that way, because there's nothing evil about profit.

There can be evil in what you take profit FOR, though. If somebody pays me to lock you up for twenty years because you prefer to smoke your evening mellow rather than drink it, am I doing evil? Or is it okay because it's "for profit?"

I agree "for profit" prisons are not the whole problem. I don't agree they're just a whipping boy.

MamaLiberty said...

The "stats" do not include (for obvious reasons) all the the crime that is never reported. Most real violent crime is never solved either, especially robbery of all the various sorts. What is the actual solve rate for murders and rapes in this country? I've lost track.

We can never know how many crimes are prevented because the criminal saw the intended victim was alert, aware, ready (however) to defend themselves... and they go find an easier victim.

So, no... our right to the tools of self defense do not rest on preventing crime, though it is certainly a factor.