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April 17, 2008

Throwing open the prison doors

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had a theory that history occurs in 30-year cycles. That seemed intriguing to me at first, but I stopped believing in it when we failed to have massive turmoil on campus during the 1990s.

Still, there's a slight element of truth to it, especially if you read Marie Gottschalk's op-ed piece in Tuesday's Washington Post, which is called "Two Separate Societies: One in Prison, One Not." The piece ostensibly is about the civil-rights crisis we now face, because we have so many people in prison. But the real goal of the article is to turn the clock back 30 years to the 1970s, when we had a lax attitude about punishment for crime and (not coincidentally) a high crime rate.

Laying the foundation for her argument about two societies, Gottschalk starts out by quoting the report of the Kerner Commission.

Forty years ago, the Kerner Commission concluded in its landmark study of the causes of racial disturbances in the United States in the 1960s: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal." Today we are still moving toward two societies: one incarcerated and one not.
The Kerner Commission report's outrageous statement about 1960s America was not even correct when the report was released in February 1968; our nation, which had recently seen the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not to mention the Fair Housing Act soon thereafter in 1968, was then moving with determination toward eliminating the two separate socities, which already existed. There was strong support then among white Americans for that goal, or else it could not have been achieved. And in the years since 1968, the report has proved to be a lot of alarmist nonsense.

This is what Gottschalk uses to make her rhetorical point about prisons.

She has two main arguments. First, she claims we have too many people in the criminal-justice system. Gottschalk is alarmed by the fact that 7 million people are "either incarcerated, on parole or probation or under some other form of state or local supervision." Here are the actual data, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics: as of the end of 2006, roughly 2.25 million people in federal or state prison or jail (about 1.5 million of whom have been sentenced) and a little over 5 million people on federal or state parole or probation. When she uses the figure 7 million, it's a trick, because parole and probation, which account for about 70 percent of the total, are far less intrusive kinds of supervision than prison and jail. It's not 7 million people in prison.

But how many is too many people, anyway? If people are committing crimes, shouldn't they be punished? Can we possibly be better off when criminals are not in prison?

(Let's agree to leave aside for now the debate over punishment for drug offenses. About 20 percent of state prisoners are there for drug offenses, which is well below what the anti-drug-war rhetoric would suggest.)

In the 1960s and 1970s, when policy-makers tried to accomplish Gottschalk's goal of reducing the prison population, the results were not pretty. Based on the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, the rate of reported violent crime per 100,000 population in America rose from 160.9 in 1960 to 363.5 in 1970 to 596.5 in 1980. I would argue that this was largely the result of a decrease in the use of prison to punish criminals during that period. For purposes of comparison, with 2.25 million people in prison today, the violent crime rate nationally was 473.5 per 100,000 in 2006. The reported violent crime rate is lower than in 1980. Prison, anyone?

Second, Gottschalk tries to turn this into a racial issue.

Many of today's crime control policies fundamentally impede the economic, political and social advancement of the most disadvantaged blacks and members of other minority groups. Prison leaves them less likely to find gainful employment, vote, participate in other civic activities and maintain ties with their families and communities.
She also claims that "one in nine young black men is behind bars." I don't have the data on this, but let's assume the statement is true. If it's true, then what? Let them out?

In 2005, nearly three-quarters of single-victim/single-offender violent crimes against black Americans were committed by other blacks. (Source here, Table 42) This is the lowest figure I've ever seen; traditionally, it's hovered around 85%. But no matter the precise figure, it's clear that the vast majority of violent crime against blacks is committed by other blacks.

Is it somehow politically incorrect to mention this? I would say definitely not. Here's why: When you invoke race in order to reduce the black population in prison, you are consigning law-abiding blacks to an increase in violent crime.

Let me rephrase this even more bluntly. If you care about furthering the success of black Americans, you can take the side of the unfortunately significant number of criminals or you can take the side of the innocent, law-abiding black Americans who are their victims. For me, the right policy -- the only moral one -- is to help rid urban areas in which large concentrations of blacks live and work of violent crime, even if the criminals happen to be black. That is the only way to help black Americans flourish.

Gottschalk's plea for more of the same policies that we tried in the 60s and 70s -- the same policies that failed us in the past -- is the true racial outrage.

[Note: I'm away for the weekend. Any response to further comments will have to wait till I return.]