Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Is the Criminal Justice System "Overly Punitive"?

Was my novel HUNTER wildly inaccurate in its portrait of a overly lenient criminal justice system?

Critics have said that. So, I'd like to address their claim that America is unjustly over-incarcerating legions of minor offenders, and even many actually innocent people. Are we truly "overly punitive" and "over-incarcerating"? Is it therefore true that we could safely release thousands of inmates, thereby saving millions or even billions of taxpayer dollars on unnecessary prison cells?

I took on the belief that huge numbers of people are in prison unjustly in my nonfiction book Criminal Justice: The Legal System vs. Individual Responsibility. Leaving aside, for the moment, the much-smaller federal prison system (where there are indeed a higher proportion of prisoners serving sentences for "crimes" that shouldn't exist), state prisons are quite another matter. The "Excuse-Making Industry" that I exposed in that book has played numerous games with definitions of crimes. One of their games is to define "the inmate" based solely on the current offense for which he is imprisoned -- ignoring the rest of his criminal history, and even other current crimes for which he may be serving concurrent or lesser sentences.

For example, under reigning definitions, "non-violent" or "first-time offenders" behind bars include many individuals who have been arrested in the past but not convicted for violent crimes, solely because plea bargaining minimized the charges against them -- or because records of serious juvenile crimes have been sealed or even expunged -- or because they received a "diversionary" sentence rather than a prior term of incarceration. "Non-violent prisoners" also include individuals whose past incarcerations include crimes of violence, but whose current incarceration may be for a property or drug crime. Similarly, "drug offenders" may be inmates whose past records include property and violent crimes, but whose current offense is for drugs. Likewise, some inmates later found to be innocent (say, via DNA testing) of their current conviction offense have criminal histories for other crimes; yet when released, they are portrayed as wholly "innocent" people. Etc.

By such deviously selective definitions, Excuse-Makers paint a picture of prison cells crammed with thousands of unjustly incarcerated choir boys -- claims that the liberal media are only too willing to echo.

In truth, it's actually very hard to get into prison in these days of "alternatives to incarceration." Usually, you have to be a chronic criminal, arrested many times, and be stupid enough to get caught a lot, so that the judges get tired of seeing you in their courtrooms and finally lock you up. Or you must commit a particularly serious crime. Most convicted criminals are, in fact, serving their terms under "community supervision."

In 2010, the latest year for which statistics have been published, "about 7 in 10 persons under the supervision of adult correctional systems were supervised in the community (4,887,900) on probation or parole at yearend 2010, while about 3 in 10 were incarcerated (2,266,800) in local jails or in the custody of state or federal prisons." In other words, the overwhelming majority of convicted adult criminals -- nearly five million -- are being "managed" on the streets, not behind bars.

In the early 1990s, when I was deeply involved in researching crime, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics provided a host of eye-opening reports about the exact composition of the inmate populations. But as the gods of Political Correctness have taken over the federal government, those stats are now hard to come by, while today the BJS is compelled to collect data on such leftist hobby-horse issues as racial composition of the inmate population, and incidents of rapes and HIV in prison. Still, by diligent digging, you can find at least some interesting data.

From the BJS document "Prisoners in 2010": "In 2009, the most recent data available, 53% of state prison inmates were serving time for violent offenses, 19% for property, 18% for drug, and 9% for public order offenses." In other words, only about 1/5th of state prisoners are behind bars for a current conviction offense that is drug-related. Appendices 16a, 16b, 17a, and 17b give some idea of the composition of state prisons by current conviction offense. But again, this does not mean, for example, that those currently convicted of drug crimes may not also have serious property or violent crimes on their records.

And even if we assume that all drug and many "public order" offenders could be safely released, and thus reduce the need for so many prisons and prison beds, the document "Probation and Parole in the United States, 2010" ought to put that fantasy to rest. Check out Appendix Table 10 on p. 38, a chart of "Adults on Probation, By Most Serious Offense, 2010." You'll find that 447,000 individuals convicted of violent crimes, plus 669,000 property criminals, are free on probation (an alternative to incarceration) -- in other words, well over a million criminals. And to that whopping total you also can add parolees (inmates released early from their prison terms): Check Appendix Table 20 on p. 48, and you'll find an additional 200,000-plus violent criminals and 185,000 property criminals.

In sum, about 1.5 million violent or property criminals are being "managed" on our streets by hopelessly overburdened parole and probation officers who can't possibly keep track of them or their activities. We could release all of the 300,000 or so state and federal drug criminals from prison, and immediately refill all their cells from the legions of convicted violent and property criminals now under "community supervision," and still need over a million additional new cells to house the rest.

And what do these convicts do when they are released back onto our streets? BJS statisticians, tasked with compiling data for their liberal masters, haven't released a fresh study of criminal recidivism (i.e., return to crime) in a long time. But the data they publish on their website are chilling:

* Of the 272,111 persons released from prisons in 15 states in 1994, an estimated 67.5% were rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within 3 years, 46.9% were reconvicted, and 25.4% resentenced to prison for a new crime.

* These offenders had accumulated 4.1 million arrest charges before their most recent imprisonment and another 744,000 charges within 3 years of release.

* Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%).

* Within 3 years, 2.5% of released rapists were arrested for another rape, and 1.2% of those who had served time for homicide were arrested for homicide.

Is this evidence that our biggest criminal-justice problem is the "unjust" incarceration of multitudes of "minor offenders"?

So, why are so many dangerous individuals are being "managed" on the streets, rather than behind bars. In 2005, I wrote a two-part piece about the "Excuse-Making Industry" of criminal advocates, many of whom also double as "sentencing consultants." Part I is archived here; and Part II is here. It shows how and why "progressive" advocates of "social justice," who have manipulated definitions and distorted statistics pertaining to economics, have done the same thing with statistics concerning crime and punishment.

Their portrait of an overly punitive justice system is an ideologically driven and financially self-serving fantasy, whose widespread acceptance has led frequently to tragic and horrifying consequences. That was the deadly reality that I meticulously exposed in Criminal Justice? and then dramatized in HUNTER.