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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Who is Responsible for America's Swollen Prison Population?

This is an interesting article looking at the differences in incarceration rates between state governors who are either Republican or Democrat. In the numbers I've seen here the numbers when it comes to Democratic governors are much higher than Republican governors, especially compared to the national average. I'd like to know what accounts for this?

Well this article answers that Democrats have been pegged as being soft on crime:

There are more examples like these—along with some counterexamples, though I haven’t found as many of those. The numbers cited above might turn out to be an aberration; I won’t know until I go through the relevant data for all fifty states. For now, suppose they aren’t aberrational; suppose the above examples illustrate a pattern. Why might imprisonment rise more under Democrats than under Republicans? The answer, I think, lies in two famous episodes in presidential campaigns in the recent past.

The elder George Bush beat Michael Dukakis, at least in part, on the strength of Willie Horton’s crime spree; Horton was a black inmate who was furloughed from a Massachusetts prison on Dukakis’ watch, and who committed armed robbery and rape while released. Four years later, Bill Clinton was determined not to let the same thing happen to him. So, shortly before the New Hampshire primary, Clinton returned to Arkansas to supervise the execution of a mentally retarded black inmate named Ricky Ray Rector. The Rector execution inoculated Clinton on crime, showed his willingness to stand tough against criminals in general and black criminals in particular. It worked: Clinton finished a close second in New Hampshire, and went on to win the White House.

Notice the nature of that political exchange. For Republicans to win votes on crime, all they need do is talk about it: the Willie Horton ad that helped turn the 1988 election is a prime example. No Clinton-style inoculation is needed. For Democrats to win those same votes, they need to take the kind of action that shows their toughness: hence Rector’s execution. Rising imprisonment has been the price Democrats have had to pay in order to win power and enact the policy changes they really want. At least, that story seems to fit the scattered examples listed above.

There's another component of this to consider. A racial component and what that means is that since blacks aren't exactly a swing vote and neither party exactly has to compete for this vote especially if they know where it's going to go there here are the results:

If the story is true, two political facts are key. First, black voters are solidly Democratic; politicians running for state and national office need not and do not compete for their votes. In the 1950s and 1960s, when black voters outside the South were swing voters—Richard Nixon won a third of the black vote in 1960, and Eisenhower won more than that in 1956—imprisonment rates fell, and fell sharply. (Not so in the South, where blacks were denied the right to vote until the late 1960s.) Imprisonment began rising only a few years after black voting patterns changed. Second, the votes of blue-collar whites are up for grabs; the two parties must compete for them, as this year’s presidential campaign reminds us. Rising imprisonment, and especially rising black imprisonment, might fairly be seen as the product of that competition.

No doubt one might draw many lessons from this sad story. Here’s mine: Criminal justice works badly when the voters whose preferences govern the system are not the voters who feel the effects of crime and punishment most directly. Over the last thirty-five years, our justice system has been governed primarily by the votes of suburban and small-town whites. But crime and punishment alike are heavily concentrated in poor city neighborhoods, and especially in black neighborhoods. Democracy works best when those making the relevant choices bear the cost of those choices. The politics of crime in the United States doesn’t meet that standard: choices are made by some, and costs are borne by others. No wonder those costs are so staggeringly high.
It's easy to catch yourself living as far away from the crime and perhaps even cause yourself the fear that this crime might reach you. If this is a concern you vote for someone who will be tough on crime. The problem is, how tough do you want them to be?

I think at times in attempting to curb crime we can go overboard and we forget this idea of innocent until proven guilty. Check out the story of DUI I posted earlier this past week or even the story of a family who was wrongly convicted on drug charges. Alas crime is certainly one of those convenient surefire issues that will get you some votes if the atmosphere is there that people are really concerned about that.

Now to go back the racial component. I have watched black themed talk shows on cable access many times and the issue that crops up the most is what to do about ex-offenders. The first time I ever realized that was a big issue. They ask about getting their records expunged or they want to be able to find work because unfortunately they've become stigmatized. That is no one trusts them or are afraid of them. It's unfortunate if you really want to start over and place your criminal past backwards in time.

It's certainly something to consider in light of the recent violence in Chicago. Will we engage in overboard tactics with the idea of curbing violence? Especially if these tactics can only work for brief time with short term effects.

Well something to consider. Article found via Instapundit.

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