Monday, March 31, 2008

Oh Pew, You Incarcerate Me!

In an op-ed in the LA Times today, James Q. Wilson argues that the recent pew report regarding incarceration rates in the United States actually misinterprets the benefits of imprisoning criminals (he says that higher rates are indicative of a more criminal society AND that imprisonment actually decreases those rates). I'm hosting grad student prospectives for the next two days so I'll be slow on posting a more in-depth response, but start your engines.

Some initial thoughts I have are skepticism about the comparative case work between the U.S. and Britain (it seems somewhat simplistic to draw a single causal variable relationship to the rise/fall of crime in the two countries, namely prison time).

I also think that his public policy approaches are wiser than just making the less-dangerous spectrum of drugs legal - it would give users the ability to rehab without going into jail (preventing them from becoming more dangerous during the prison socialization process) without condoning behavior that is often associated as a slippery slope (associated with greater drug use, more serious drugs, and an increase in the propensity to commit more crime).

1 comment:

Lang said...

I take issue with his central argument, that a lower crime rate in and of itself is worth imprisoning so many people.

First, as EBL notes, saying we have more people in prison and fewer crimes (per capita, i assume) than England seems overly simplistic.

Second, even if true, so what? The question isn't just how to lower the crime rate, but how to balance the costs and benefits of doing so. Maybe imprisoning more people does lead to fewer crimes, but even if one assumes that that is the case, that doesn't answer the question of whether or not its worth it.

If we really want to eliminate crime, we could create an overly harsh legal system. Lets make jaywalking a crime punishable by death, and stringently enforce this new law - it will drastically decrease crime, but that doesn't mean that this is a law worth enacting.

He seems to assume that a lower crime rate is inherently worth stricter criminal laws and law enforcement, yet never actually makes a case for this.

He writes that "The typical criminal commits from 12 to 16 crimes a year (not counting drug offenses). Locking him up spares society those crimes." so why ever release them? Just think, if we give every crime a life-sentence, how large we can make our prison population, and how much we can shrink crime rates!

He accuses Pew of not recognizing the benefits of a larger prison population, but his own argument doesn't recognize the costs.