Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Call me soft on crime

Ask Americans what they’re most worried about and what they want from their elected officials, and consistently over the years a lot of people are worried about crime and want the government to get tough on criminals. That’s not hard to understand – watch your local TV news for a while, and you will quickly learn that assaults, rapes and murders are the principal activities in your home town, and if they couldn't find any locally on that particular day they'll spend the first ten minutes of the evening news talking about violent crimes that happened 600 miles away. The obsession of local TV news with violent crime is second only to their obsession with inclement weather, and it's equally demented. Every time there's the threat of six inches of snow, they're interrupting Bowling with the B-List Celebrities to show us a hatless talking head standing out in the windblown sleet to bewail the coming apocalypse, whereupon the mob strips the grocery stores of milk, bottled water and diapers. It seems the people react similarly to the nightly recitation of carnage, culled by any means necessary from among our 300 million people. So we have mandatory sentencing laws, elimination of parole, an end to coddling of criminals with things like education and job training – why should criminals, who have lost any right to respect or help from society, get a free education when my own law abiding kids can’t?

So who are all these vicious criminals filling our jails? Are they the rapists and murderers of grandparents? Not exactly. Twenty-five to 30% of them have been convicted of drug offenses only, and the vast majority of them are not major traffickers. A full 80% of criminals, including those who have been convicted of property crimes (the largest group), have histories of substance abuse and their offenses are in one way or another associated with substance abuse and addiction. You could look it up. They're in for shoplifting, passing bad checks, stealing car radios, and maybe purse snatchings to get money for drugs. The most violent were usually robbing drug dealers.

But these aren’t just any old addicts – they aren’t the same people who end up in the Betty Ford Clinic or the college counseling program. They’re mostly people with little education, low literacy, no marketable skills. They started doing poorly in school when they were young and their lives just never got going. They might have learning disabilities, they might have come from unstable or abusive home environments – and oh yeah, when they first started to get in trouble, as kids, the system dealt with them punitively, rather than trying to help them. That was much more likely to happen if they were Black or Hispanic. According to the best available data, Black and Hispanic kids don’t use illicit drugs or commit offenses more often than white kids, but they’re much more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, and from there it's all over.

So the cops find a guy selling dime bags, or writing bad checks, or stealing car stereos, and the judge throws him in jail for a year, then they toss him back out on the street, still without education, job skills or experience, and now with a criminal record. What’s gonna happen?

It has been shown that substance abuse treatment reduces recidivism, and that the best kinds of programs can reduce it by more than 50% -- at a tremendous cost saving to society. However, according to a CSAT consensus panel, “Many offenders are released with no place to live, no job, and without family or social supports. They often lack the knowledge and skills to access available resources for adjustment to life on the outside.” This is happening more and more now because legislators have gotten tough on crime by eliminating probation and parole. In other words, people are made to serve their full sentences in jail, then they are just dumped on the street. For released offenders, treatment is much more likely to succeed if it is integrated with other essential rehabilitative services including education, job skills development, housing, family counseling, etc. But most offenders get none of the above.

We can take a bite out of crime. We know exactly how to do it. But we’re spending billions of dollars building prisons and locking people up, which provides employment for prison guards in depressed rural areas but also increases the crime rate. There’s a better use for most of that money, but when was the last time you heard a politician promising to provide substance abuse treatment, job training, education, housing and family counseling to released offenders? Probably never, because their opponents in the next election would accuse them of "coddling criminals." Guess what. Criminals are people. They got to be criminals mostly because of stuff that happened to them. We can fix that, in many cases. But that would be the liberal solution, and we all know that's a dirty word.

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