Friday, August 13, 2004

Generating Prisoners 

Prometheus 6 linked to this item by PBS techmeister Robert X. Cringely on the symbiosis of bad public policy and bad science:
America does a better job of putting people in prison than any other country. Just over two million Americans are behind bars right now, a number that has been growing far quicker than the overall population for more than 20 years. The impact of this mass imprisonment is felt especially in the African-American community, where one in 12 men are in prison or jail. The reasons given for these high numbers vary, but something that is frequently mentioned in any discussion is the impact U.S. federal sentencing guidelines have had on sending more people to jail for longer periods of time. Those very guidelines are now coming under scrutiny by the courts because their imposition may have denied some inmates their constitutional right to a trial by jury. That will be decided soon by the U.S. Supreme Court, but for the moment, all that I know for sure is that the sentencing guidelines in use now aren't working as intended, and the people who installed those guidelines probably knew this even before we started building so many prisons.
In 1982, the U.S. Sentencing Commission hired two economists from the Hoover Institution, Michael Block and Fred Nold, to do a study on sentencing guidelines, hoping the two of them could "could come up with some economic twist for the new guidelines that would make them more effective at reducing crime." But the feds weren't happy with the findings:
I'm told the Block and Nold study, which was intended to economically validate the proposed sentencing guidelines, instead showed that the new guidelines would actually create more crime than they would deter. More crime, more drug use, more robbery, more murder would be the result, not less. Not only that, but these guidelines would lead to entire segments of the population entering a downward economic spiral, taking away their American dream.

There is no mention anywhere of this study, which was completely buried by the DoJ under then-secretary Edwin Meese [of The Meese Commission Report on Pornography fame -- S.]. The proposed sentencing guidelines were accepted unaltered and the world we have today is the result. We spend tens of billions per year on prisons to house people who don't contribute in any way to our economy. We tear apart the black and latino communities. The cost to society is immense, and as Block and Nold showed, unnecessary. AND THE FEDS KNEW THIS AT THE TIME.

It is one thing to make what turns out to have been a mistake and another thing altogether to make what you have reason to believe will be a mistake. Why would the DoJ, having good reason to believe that the new sentencing guidelines would create the very prison explosion we've seen in the last 20 years, go ahead with the new guidelines? My view is that they went ahead because they were more interested in punishment than deterrence. They went ahead because they didn't perceive those in prison as being constituents. They went ahead because it enabled the building of larger organizations with more power. They went ahead because the idea of a society with less crime is itself a threat to the prestige of those in law enforcement.

Where would we be today if the Block and Nold paper had been accepted and acted upon? Well, we'd probably have a few hundred thousand fewer people in prison. We'd probably have hundreds fewer prisons. Our black communities, especially, would probably be more economically productive. We'd probably have less drug use, fewer unwed mothers, it goes on and on.
We were about to mention that Cringely missed at least one reason why "they went ahead" -- the fact that the American corrections system is a booming economy unto itself, generating billions of dollars yearly and employing some 2.2 million people -- but in the time it took us to cut and paste the above, Prometheus 6 beat us to the punch. (And threw in a pretty good Jim Hightower article on the prison labor force, "The Next Best Thing to Slaves," for good measure.)

We won't even mention the Alan Keyes campaign posters.

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