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Uncommon Nonsense On Justice

The Boston Globe had an editorial recently about the costs of keeping prisoners incarcerated. They make a common-sense, economic argument for lighter sentences for non-violent criminals, pointing out that jail cells are a limited commodity and should be reserved for the greatest threats to society. It's a good argument.

But I'm not buying it.

As someone with a bit of a libertarian bent, I agree with limiting the power and role of government in everyday life. But one of the major purposes of government is to provide the services that simply aren't economical for the private sector to cover. National defense is one of them -- despite what folks say about Haliburton and Blackwater, it simply isn't practical to outsource the whole thing. Roads, censuses, and postal service also fall into that category. Toss in passing and enforcing standards for food, drugs, and other safety issues -- the potential conflict of interest is just too great.

In that spirit, the penal system is one that simply won't work on a capitalist basis.

Prisoners are a financial drain. There is really no way of getting around that, short of treating prisoners as slave labor. Therefore, it has to fall on the federal government - local, state, or federal -- to pay for it.

But how about reducing the costs of incarcerating someone? Can't we do something about that?

Well, sure. Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona's Maricopa County has worked wonders on slashing costs at his jail. It seems he remembers that these people have committed offenses against society, and -- as society's representative -- he doesn't think that society should be asked to spend one penny more than necessary to keep them locked up.

And the Globe has one idea I think I can get behind. "Drug-free zones" around schools and the like are a good idea, but 1,000 feet? That's a hell of a big circle. And, as the Globe notes, in cities, it can cover huge swaths of real estate. The idea behind them is to keep drug dealing away from school children, but how many kids routinely go up to 1,000 feet from campus during the school day? Cutting the radius in half would bring the law more in line with its actual intent.

But simply revising the laws because they're causing too many people to be arrested and costing too much money... that's stupid. And in the Globe's case, it's attempting to rationalize its own soft-on-crime attitude by appealing to its traditional opponents on a basis it thinks might work.

Prisoners costing too much? Find ways to cut spending, not cut prisoners. Fix the laws that need fixing, not the ones that simply prove too effective.

Editor's note: error in paragraph five corrected. Thanks, JFO, for pointing it out first. I wish you'd been more explicit, though; it took Anon Y Mous spelling it out for me to realize what I'd typed.


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Comments (23)

Actually, prison official r... (Below threshold)

Actually, prison official report that the biggest problem in prison population vs cost is the results of 3-strike laws and tougher parole statutes on an increasingly geriatric prison population, which frequently cost 3 times what a regular prisoner will cost to house due to medical costs.

Prisoners over 55 are the fastest growing population in prison (google news or scholar for "geriatric prisoner" to get a handle on the size of the problem). The costs often skyrocket from $20k/year to 60k or more as prisoners cross the 55 year old mark.

Sure, we can put all they young guys out cutting grass or something, but taking care of all the wheezers is a major drain on the system.

Once again the law of unintended consequences strikes.

JayAre you suggest... (Below threshold)


Are you suggesting, as it appears, that the federal government pay the costs for state prisoners?

I certainly didn't intend t... (Below threshold)

I certainly didn't intend to, JFO. I can see how you might get that impression -- most of the examples I cited are federal responsibilities -- but that's not what I meant.

I guess my best weasel is that I mentioned "roads," not "highways," and roads have traditionally been a state responsibility. But I should have been a bit more careful to list some examples of state responsibilities.


The criminal justice system... (Below threshold)

The criminal justice system largely becomes a farce due to economics and class. Wealthy defendants such as OJ, Robert Blake and Phil Spector can afford expensive legal representation to establish "reasonable doubt" standards that make conviction despite compelling evidence nearly impossible. On the other hand, a poorer defendant who cannot afford the average of $80,000 to defend themselves from a felony charge, have to accept a court appointed public defender who usually urges them to plea to a "plea bargain" whether or not they are guilty or innocent.

The jails and prisons become loaded up with the poorer persons who may have been unfairly charged with a crime that they did not commit, while white collars crimes such as subprime home loan scams, email scams, phony bill scams, mail fraud, payday loan scams, and other crimes mushroom and flourish and rob the American public of billions each year.

The class justice system allows many of the wealthy to buy their freedom by being able to afford expensive legal representation to establish "reason doubt" standards and avoid conviction while the poorer cannot. Until this is somehow resolved, the system will remain unfair and the jails and prisons will continue to disportionately represent the poorer persons as well as become the largest provider of mental health services. In Oregon's Multnomah County, Sheriff Bernie Guisto resents that he is the largest mental health provider in the community.

When Sheriff Joe Arpaio looks to pride for serving moldy baloney sandwiches or other abuses to those locked up under his watch, remember that many are probably innocent, but could not afford to adequately defend themselves from petty legal issues. Few major white collar criminals responsible for taking someone's home or life savings are likely under the watch of Sheriff Joe.

Dry your eyes, Paul. That's... (Below threshold)

Dry your eyes, Paul. That's typical liberal crap. Which ones are "probably innocent"? Just the white ones? Just the black ones? Just the child molesters? Just the poor ones? Well, hell, let your people go. Jailhouse demographics are a reflection of who commits crimes and who gets caught, not who can afford the best lawyer. It's 1960's pretzel logic to assert that prison populations are proof of systematic racism. Everybody's innocent in prison. Just ask the inmates.

Overcrowding comes from politicians vying with each other to demonstrate how tough on crime they are as long as the cameras are turned on. They get pretty scarce when it comes time to build the prisons needed to cope with the results of their knee-jerk legislation. Mandatory sentencing, artificial hate crime laws, three-strike laws, weepy 20 year delays in capital sentencing, and unreasonably harsh drug sentencing rules get you to where we are.

The overwhelming majority o... (Below threshold)

The overwhelming majority of prisoners are there because their crimes are either directly or indirectly related to drug use. Some states, like California with its 3 strikes rule. have decided that they will warehouse these folks despite the incredible cost of doing so. I was watching a show last week on Discovery about their prison system. One man was there for 25 years to life for his 3rd burglary. He's a drug addict, untreated and simply warehoused at an approximate cost to California of 1 million dollars. There are thousands like him in California and other states.

I think it's clear the penal system is broken. There is little or no money available for drug treatment programs. There is a disparity in sentencing between crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine. I'm not saying that people who commit crime should not be punished but it seems to me that simply warehousing them at the incredible cost required is not the answer. In the California documentary there was no way to allow them to work. There were no facilities and little if any training. These guys just sit around all day learning how to be better criminals.

Members of the armed forces... (Below threshold)

Members of the armed forces enjoy less creature comforts than inmates(sailors on sub have 3 less living space than federal prisoners, go on maneuvers and eat some MRE, most transports are unheated), so I think true cost cutting measures can be implemented while being completely human. Also if there's over crowding build more prisons. One aspect that we have to address is why we lock people up. Is it just punishment for their crimes? Is it punishment and keeping them away from society for the protection of society? Is rehabilitation part of the duty of prison systems?

Example lets say you have a pedophile who raped 3 children. How many years is he in the system.
If it just punishment he get food, shelter and clothing for 15 years 5 years for each child.

If it for society's protection maybe it needs to be life sentence because its known that these types of criminals have a high level of recommitting the crimes when released.

Now what does he do while imprisoned, he get food clothing shelter at the basic minimum levels?

Does he get access to books and other material to improve himself. Do we provide counseling? Should they get exercise equipment to be healthy?

I bring these up because through our countries history we have gone through many iterations of what prisons are for and each time we increase programs that are offered we increase cost. However does any look at the results?

Leave i to the BOSTEN SLOB ... (Below threshold)
Spurwing Plover:

Leave i to the BOSTEN SLOB to want us to feel sorry for some crinimals who get themselves in prison by commiting crime let NORMAN MAILER take care of them all
notiz=[Disemvoweled for clarity by the editor]

Bobdog, your comment misses... (Below threshold)

Bobdog, your comment misses all the serious concerns of many lawyers about serious justice application flaws in the American justice system.

Wealthy defendants such as OJ, Robert Blake and Phil Spector have the necessary minimum $80,000 on up to milions required to hire private legal representation that includes jury selection analysts, crime investigators, expert witnesses and other courtroom displays that can establish "reasonable doubt" standards that make conviction by a jury very difficult regardless of the weight of evidence indicating guilt. Poorer defendants with a $500 defense budget court appointed public defender do not get the benefit of investigators, expert witnesses, courtroom displays or jury selection analysts. In the economy of things, it is far easier for a public defender to urge an innocent defendant to accept a plea deal for a crime for a shorter sentence that they did not commit than make the losing effort to defend the client in court with just a $500 defense budget. Great attorneys such as F. Lee Bailey have lamented that the guilty wealthy can often buy their freedom in such a flawed system.

Justice is often not served in such a system that becomes the American version of the corrupt Third World model of wealthy prisoners buying their freedom by paying their jailers. How can this be fixed? What can be done to equalize justice so that the guilty wealthy also face conviction rates in greater numbers for murder or white collar crimes compared poorer defendants charged with any crime at any level.

Well, the problem is going ... (Below threshold)
Baron Von Ottomatic:

Well, the problem is going to only get worse as our busy-body politicians continue to criminalize everything. It shouldn't fall upon the police to enforce morality, they should be focused on property and violent crimes.

Paul, One BIG Expensive rea... (Below threshold)

Paul, One BIG Expensive reason Oregon as well as many other States' prisons are crowded is that with massive de-institutionalization of the mentally ill along with the massive un-availability of appropriate mental health and social support for the mentally ill (many of whom are among the"drug addicts" and repeat offenders cited above by others). You're whining about the wrong liberal cause.

Seems to me that there are ... (Below threshold)
Mike M.:

Seems to me that there are several answers.

First, substitute harsh conditions for long sentences.

Second, substitute corporal punishment for long sentences.

Third, upgrade the "three strikes" laws...instead of a long life sentence, the convict is executed. Problem solved.

Epador, I certainly agree w... (Below threshold)

Epador, I certainly agree with your observations about the declined role of community mental health services in Oregon as fueling part of the problem. I largely only addressed the economics side of the justice system which allows for an unequal application of justice on one hand and adds to the public incarceration costs by jailing many innocent persons unable to afford an adequate defense.

DNA and other elaborate crime investigation methods are seldom used in most convictions, often many poorer defendants plead guilty to crimes out of fear of a worst sentence with little real state evidence. And the right to a trial has been largely gutted by 3 Strikes Laws, Mandatory Sentencing and other conditions imposed by conservative legislators that have also reduced the role of judge to a mere moderator in the courtroom and reduced an important check and balance of the judge to reduce the impact of what they may view as as a wrongful jury conviction in some cases. Three Strikes Laws also violate double jeopardy standards by allowing a second retrial and enhanced sentence based on time already served for a prior offense.

Neo-Comm Paul Says: Whe... (Below threshold)
Piso Mojado:

Neo-Comm Paul Says: When Sheriff Joe Arpaio looks to pride for serving moldy baloney sandwiches or other abuses to those locked up under his watch, remember that many are probably innocent, but could not afford to adequately defend themselves from petty legal issues.

What utter Bull Shit. Yeah, they are all innocent, sure! Just because MANY can't buy their way out does not mean they are innocent. Give me a break. The dumb asses are there for a reason.

Hey Jay,How about mo... (Below threshold)

Hey Jay,
How about monetary penalties for non-violent offenders that are used to pay for incarceration of violent offenders?
I say that because society has less of a need to be protected from non-violent offenders.
And substantially garnishing someone's wages for a certain number of years (just like a prison-sentence is determined by the crime or court) would really, really suck.
Taking your freedom sucks more, but if you were constantly broke while free, and thus not able to enjoy your freedom as much, that would be a pretty bad punishment.

We are ripe for reform. On... (Below threshold)

We are ripe for reform. One problem is that anything nontraditional runs afoul of 'unusual'.

And just try defining 'crue... (Below threshold)

And just try defining 'cruel'.

Paul, pointing out three ri... (Below threshold)

Paul, pointing out three rich guys who are probably guilty but could afford high-priced lawyers to support your contention that other, less wealthy people are innocent is rather flawed reasoning. While convicting the innocent, and the pressure that PDs can put on defendants to cop a plea, is a problem, there's no evidence to support the contention that a large proportion of the prison population is innocent of the crimes for which they are convicted. And when it comes to innocent people pleading guilty, well being stupid is no defense. The Larry Craig defense just doesn't fly (FWIW he should never have been arrested; but still, don't plead guilty if you think you are innocent).

As bobdog and others pointed out, the real prison population problem stems from irrational laws, especially drug laws. The federal prison population has been increasing far faster than state prisons, and 42% of federal prisoners are non-violent drug offenders. Drug offense sentences are increasing (and minorities are given prison time more often than whites for the same offense), and 1/4 of nonviolent drug offenders are convicted of a violent second offense, largely due to the influence of prison culture during their first incarceration.

Most absurd of all, we are arresting 800,000 and imprisoning almost 50,000 nonviolent marijuana offenders every year in state and federal prisons. For pot! Keep in mind that almost 40% of the US population admits to smoking pot at least sometime in their life. Criminals, all of them.

We need to decriminalize possession of soft drugs such as marijuana, and send hard drug addicts to treatment instead of prison (not to mention the mentally ill that should be in hospitals, not jails), and we would easily bring our prison population down to sustainable levels and vastly decrease the burden on law enforcement in prosecuting this ridiculous failure of a war on drugs.

In my opinion, Sheriff Arpa... (Below threshold)

In my opinion, Sheriff Arpaio is a great American! He should be put in charge of prison reform nationwide.

If you think the cost to so... (Below threshold)

If you think the cost to society of keeping criminals in jail is too high, it's nothing compared to the cost of letting them out.

Prisoners are a fi... (Below threshold)
Anon Y. Mous:
Prisoners are a financial drain. There is really no way of getting around that, short of treating prisoners as slave labor. Therefore, it has to fall on the federal government to pay for it.
Why should I (through the federal government) pay for Massachusetts's silly drug laws. I already pay enough for the silly ones in my own state.
3 strikes and out should me... (Below threshold)

3 strikes and out should mean execution for the scumbag. Any person can make a mistake, making 3 of them against society should be a death sentence. Save a lot of tax money for the libs to spend elsewhere.

Mantis, my narrowly defined... (Below threshold)

Mantis, my narrowly defined legal point about the courtroom rights of the wealthy vs. the poorer only asserts that the wealthy can afford high priced level representation that can help to establish a "reasonable doubt" standard that makes their convictions for crimes much more difficult compared to many poorer clients who simply accept a plea bargain regardless of guilt because of the simple economics that a $500 public defender will not be able to effectively establish possible "reasonable doubt" grounds on their behalf. Few wealthy persons charged with crimes accept plea bargains compared to less wealthy persons.






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