While I was glad to see another piece on criminal justice making the front page of the Times (lord knows the subject has been conspicuously absent from the presidential debates), the article weirdly omitted some key issues surrounding astronomical imprisonment levels in the U.S.
First, one of the reasons that our crazy conviction rates and harsher sentences matter, beyond interest in international comparisons, is that they correspond to massive disenfranchisement levels, another of our ignominious distinctions among Western countries.
Second, the piece discusses rates of imprisonment without questioning the value of prisons themselves — making no mention whatsoever of the nation’s prison abolition movement. I mean, I know it’s the New York Times, but still. Look at the other perspectives included:
“The simple truth is that imprisonment works,” wrote Kent Scheidegger and Michael Rushford of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation in The Stanford Law and Policy Review. “Locking up criminals for longer periods reduces the level of crime. The benefits of doing so far offset the costs.”
If you’re gonna quote some dude saying that prisons are a dandy solution to crime, then you could at least find someone who thinks that maybe prisons aren’t totally awesome. And who doesn’t view the whole world and its human populations in terms of a series of cost-benefit analyses.
Lastly, this part was just bewildering: in a few brief sentences, supposedly backed by myriad “specialists” (unspecified), the author dismisses the possibility that race has contributed significantly to the syrocketing of incarceration rates since…well, the end of the Civil Rights Movement:
Many specialists dismissed race as an important distinguishing factor in the American prison rate. It is true that blacks are much more likely to be imprisoned than other groups in the United States, but that is not a particularly distinctive phenomenon. Minorities in Canada, Britain and Australia are also disproportionately represented in those nation’s prisons, and the ratios are similar to or larger than those in the United States.
Well whoop-dee-doo, break out the bubbly — other countries’ criminal justice systems are just as racist as ours!
Then again, maybe not (or at least not in the same way).
See, other white-dominated nations may also lock up people of color disproportionately, but as the author points out, a major factor yielding more prisoners here in the States is our particularly long sentences. One of the reasons we’ve got harsher penalties, as many of the scholars quoted point out, is that the legal system is subject to politicized demands. Thus, “tough on crime” rhetoric (which often spotlights crimes relating to poverty, working-class drug use, and residence in already over-surveilled communities of color) results in legislation like “three strikes” laws, elevated sentencing minimums, and, here in Massachusetts, the draconian Criminal Offender Record Information laws (CORI — anyone go to the march a couple of weeks ago?). In other words, our national crime motto is, ‘Keep the bad guys off the streets.’
And you’re telling me it’s obvious that racism has nothing to do with America’s unique position as the world’s most zealous incarcerator?