Friday, May 8, 2015

We should take savings from ending mass incarceration laws & spend it on education & social welfare programs

By Marc Jampole

In some ways, the term “mass incarceration” is a misnomer. The term immediately conjures images of rounding up large numbers of people at one time, most of them innocent of a crime, much as the Nazis rounded up Jews during the Holocaust or Stalin prosecuted his purges.

What an increasingly great number of people on both the left and the right are calling “mass incarceration” doesn’t quite fit that image. In the United States, people are usually picked off—that is, arrested—one by one, for individual acts. More importantly, virtually all of the people, mostly African-American males, incarcerated because of the overly strict sentencing laws laid down in the 1980’s and 1990’s committed a real crime.

What people are rightfully questioning now are whether what those arrested and convicted did should have been crimes and whether the sentences for those crimes were too long.

The numbers are truly shameful. A mere 5% of the world’s population resides in the United States, and yet we curate 25% of all the Earth’s prisoners. An inordinate number of our prisoners are African-American males.

Extreme rightwingers such as the Koch brothers are joining progressives to demand an end to the laws that led to American mass incarceration, such as three-strikes-you’re-out laws. The primary motivation stated by most conservatives for wanting to end mass incarceration is fiscal. They are sick and tired of spending gobs of money to house prisoners who did nothing more than sell a little weed.

Among liberals, the fiscal concerns resonate less than basic humanitarianism: these people did not deserve to go to prison for these victimless crimes. We have ruined the lives of a two generations of African-American men and their families. Wouldn’t we have been better off if the money spent on warehousing human beings had been funneled into educating them? That’s basically the argument of progressives, and I agree with it.

It’s ironic that right and left unite on the issue of ending mass incarceration, because from the late 1960’s onwards, the cry for higher sentencing laws came from the near left (AKA mainstream Democrats) as much as from conservatives, if not more so, as Radley Balko points out in The Rise of the Warrior Cop

It may befuddle many at first as to why the Koch brothers would divert their attention from killing unions, suppressing the minimum wage and fighting needed safety and environmental regulations to take on prison reform. But consider this: A goodly share of the Koch political spending focuses on initiatives which suppress the price of labor. Because the Baby Boomers who are retiring are followed by the baby-busting Generation X, many labor economists arepredicting labor shortages for a while. Injecting relatively unproductive prison labor into the labor pool will serve to hold down wages.

By supporting the end of laws that have produced the mass incarceration phenomenon, the Kochs are abandoning their natural ally, the prison privatization industry, who, of course, oppose lowering sentences. Remember that prison privatization money helped to fuel the lobbying that led to these ridiculous laws. What I would like to know is who was it—the lobbyists, the think tank wonks, Congress, some organization such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the staffs of successive state and federal executives—who dreamed up laws that so nicely tend to throw more blacks than whites in jail?

The prison privatization industry and others who want to maintain these Draconian sentencing practices offer the same defense as do police departments all over the country for such absurd practices as racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies: it has dramatically lowered the crime rate. FYI, the gun industry uses the same argument in backing the many new laws that make it easier for people to carry guns in public and legally shoot other people.

It is true the crimes of all types are down dramatically since the early 1990’s all over the country, everywhere, that is, but on television and in the movies. A simpleton might conclude that some combination of expanded sentences that discriminate against one group and enactment of right-to-carry laws were the reason crime declined so much.

But the simpleton would be wrong.

The latest repudiation of the mass incarceration movement comes from Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Julia Bowling of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, whose recent What Caused the Crime Decline? analyzes the various factors that may have contributed to the decline in the crime rate. 

Available online for free, What Caused the Crime Decline? analyzes virtually all of the possible factors leading to a decline in the crime rate using the most complete reports and advanced computer modeling techniques. Roeder, Eisen and Bowling divide the recent past into two parts, 1990-1999 and 2000-2013. Different factors were important factors in the decline of crime in each of these eras. For example, the aging population was an important reason crime declined between 1990 and 1999, but not afterwards. Decreased alcohol consumption was important in both periods. The growth in the number of police on the beat helped reduce crimes between 1990 and 1999, whereas afterwards it was the introduction of new computer programs that identify crime patterns.

Increased incarceration was a minor factor before 2000, reducing crime a mere 6%. After 2000, it has not been a factor at all.  FYI, neither enactment of looser gun laws nor the use of the death penalty have any effect on crime rates.

We should note that historical studies have tended to agree that throughout recorded history the main factor determining the crime rate has been the population of males between the ages of 16-49. By that consistent rule of thumb, the crime rate should have nudged up after the turn of the century. What we really are arguing about is not why the crime rate is so low, but why it has remained down.

The big question is: was it worth billions of dollars and those millions of ruined lives of prisoners and their families to achieve what may have been an additional 6% reduction in crime. If crime were 6% higher than it is today, but still well below the level of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, would anyone even notice? Let’s assume that we decriminalize the petty drug offences and other victimless crimes that put so many people in prison.  Wouldn’t the increase in the rate of crime by ending mass incarceration be even less, since actions we now consider crimes would no longer be?

Warning to those who think emptying the prisons will enable us to reduce government expenses: some of the money now spent on prisons will need to be used rehabilitate and train the victims of mass incarceration on how to live in the modern world. Instead of returning the rest of the savings to the wealthy in the form of lower taxes, it should be used to improve public education, provide job training, make the court system more accessible, train police in community policing techniques and make other improvements to the criminal justice system and social network. Jobs as prison guards will be lost, but there will be an increases demand for social workers and teachers, so the economy won’t suffer. Perhaps the inhumane private prison industry will go the way of slavery and the horse-and-buggy.

We haven’t been able to overcome the fear-mongers and reduce military budgets, end domestic spying or pass adequate gun control laws. So just because liberals have entered into an unholy alliance with the Kochs does not mean that mass incarceration laws are ending anytime soon.  And thus continues the mortal stain of racism which has poisoned this country since before its inception.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Wall Street Journal lies when it says what happened in Baltimore is about the failure of liberal government

By Marc Jampole

The Wall Street Journal has devoted a lot of column inches lately to advocating the truly odious idea that liberal/progressive government programs, and not racism, are to blame for what happened in Baltimore, not racism.

The Journal fronted this non-reality based opinion in an editorial a few days back, and now it is publishing an article by regular columnist, former Bush II speechwriter, William McGurn, that says the same thing.

The Journal and its factotums build the theory that progressive government has led to the crisis in Baltimore on a big lie, a bunch of little lies and a conflation of motivations.

The big lie of course is that Baltimore has been under progressive or liberal rule for the past 50 years, or as McGurn puts it, “It’s about the consequences of 50 years of progressive misrule.”

Last time I checked, the United States took a turn towards the right in about 1975, which accelerated precipitously when Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981. Since then, with few exceptions, federal, state and local governments have been in the hands of rightwingers and centrists looking right, with the occasional centrist peeking left like Obama and Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley. So for at least 35-40 years of the past 50, we have not lived with progressive rule of any sort, but rather, rightwing misrule.

McGurn states that the proof that racism is not at the heart of what has happened in Baltimore is that progressive programs such as welfare, food stamps, jobless benefits, school subsidies, Head Start and Social Security have not helped the poor in predominately white areas such as the Appalachia.

McGurn has to tell a lot of little lies to pretend that these programs don’t work. Imagine how much worse our recent recession would have been if millions of people had not received food stamps and unemployment insurance. The recent The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools OutperformPrivate Schools by Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher A. Lubienski does the math that proves that (heavily-unionized) public schools outperform private schools, when we correct for family wealth and disabled pupils. Where would the elderly be today without Social Security, which is essentially a fiscally strong program that would be funded for decades if we merely removed the cap on earnings assessed by the Social Security tax?

What McGurn forgets is that these programs have been cut to shreds during the past 35 years. He forgets that wages have stagnated during that time, especially the minimum wage, which has lost approximately 40% of its purchasing power. He forgets that governments everywhere have retreated from support of public and higher education. He forgets that privatization and anti-unionism have transferred income from the many who are employees to the few who employ.

Progressive ideology has nothing to do with the Draconian prison sentences of the past 35 years, virtually everywhere imposed more heavily and frequently on African-Americans, often for victimless crimes. This system of “mass incarceration” has destroyed families and communities in Baltimore and elsewhere. No one would aver that imposing stiffer penalties is a progressive idea.

Let’s not forget that Baltimore was one of the very first cities to see its middle class and rich inhabitants abandon it for the suburbs, destroying the tax base. There was no “separate but equal” applied by white-flighters in the Baltimore metropolitan area, just irrational racism.

The conflation that McGurn proposes involves the racism in the criminal justice system and the economic problems of many poor Baltimore residents. He never says it, but his reasoning must be as follows: If Baltimore were thriving economically, the killing of another innocent black man in police custody would not have caused riots. It sounds like he’s channeling Phil Ochs’ old song, “Outside a Small Circle of Friends,” in which a group of friends show no concern about their fellow humans as long as they themselves are happy, well-fed and prosperous. Kind of like the politics of selfishness, isn’t it?

In fact, there have not been riots over police brutality in poor white areas for the simple reason that the police don’t single out whites for harsh treatment. Nowhere does racial profiling identify whites. Nowhere do whites get arrested at higher rates than minorities. Nowhere do they get stiffer jail sentences. Only a fool would spit into a typhoon of facts and try to deny that our criminal justice system is inherently racist.

All over the country, people of all races and colors are angry about the increasing inequality in wealth and income distribution in the United States—stagnant wages, an inadequate minimum wage, the high cost of college. But McGurn and the Wall Street Journal misinterpret this anger in two ways, ignoring two key facts:
1.      It was 35 years of rightwing rule that engendered the anger.
2.      Minorities are also rightfully angry about their mistreatment in the criminal justice system.

To bang the final nail in the coffin in which we should bury the idea that racism isn’t behind what happened in Baltimore, let’s engage in two thought experiments. First imagine that Baltimore became an economic utopia in which everyone made a great living, ate well, sent their children to college and had a viable retirement plan, but nothing else changed. Right-minded people would still be angry about the repeated deaths of African-American men at the hands of the police.

The other thought experiment is to imagine what would happen if whites were the victims of discrimination and violence by the police and courts. Would decades of organized violent suppression of those of European background lead to riots and other sudden outbursts of community rage? Anyone who thinks it wouldn’t hasn’t studied the American or European labor movements in the 19th and early 20th century.