The Perverse Effects of Lock-'em-Up Justice

NEAL R. PEIRCE

January 13, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Murder and mayhem mount in troubled inner-city neighborhoods, coast to coast. Politicians say it's time to prosecute young teen-age criminals as adults, to get the killers behind bars and keep them there.

For dangerous criminals, until or unless they're truly pacified and rehabilitated, prison is the answer. Society has to be protected.

But if the deterrent to crime were tough prison sentences, years behind razor wire and guard towers, then the murder rate would be dropping now. We've gone on a binge of mandatory and longer sentences, and the deterrence just isn't there. Our federal and 50-state system of crime control -- from police and courts to jails and prisons -- is a colossal failure.

Public impressions to the contrary, only a quarter of local jail inmates and a third of people held in state prisons are there for violent crimes, according to estimates by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. And Justice Department statistics show that except for homicides, serious-crime rates have remained steady since the '70s.

Still, we've been throwing money into the system as if there were no tomorrow. In the 20 years from 1969 to 1989, per-capita spending on criminal justice in American cities and counties soared 400 percent, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. The share of city budgets absorbed by police expenditures almost doubled from 1940 to 1989.

State spending on prisons increased by a factor of 12 from 1969 to 1989. Yet a deficit-plagued state such as California talks of adding 51,000 prison beds by 1995, at a capital cost of $5 billion, adding $1 billion to its budget each year.

The number of people we incarcerate has soared from about 250,000 to almost 1.25 million. With 426 prisoners per 100,000 population, we are world champions in putting people behind bars. Only South Africa and the late Soviet Union even come close. In European and Asias countries the rates are a quarter to one-twelfth ours.

State and local spending on jails and prisons, now pushing $30 billion a year, has been escalating at well over 10 percent annually.

We have a crazy-quilt pattern of incarceration in state prisons -- -- measured per 100,000 population, the figure is 463 in Nevada but only 181 in New Mexico, 443 in South Carolina but 261 in North Carolina, 421 in Louisiana and 357 in Michigan but only 83 in West Virginia and 73 in Minnesota.

Mandatory sentencing laws have brought us such oddities as a 50-year-old Michigan grandmother, with no prior criminal record, sentenced to life without parole (the same penalty as first-degree murder) for possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine.

And for all this incarceration, have we stopped drug dealing? Have we halted burglaries, or auto thefts, or vandalism? Reduced peoples' fears? Hardly. Police make arrests in a tiny percentage of cases.

And here's the biggest irony of all: We're incarcerating hundreds of thousands of ''the wrong people.'' Overwhelmingly, they're guilty of petty crimes and pose little danger to public safety. They're homeless vagrants, petty thieves, bad-check passers, people caught with a few ounces of marijuana. And thousands are held in our jails just because they're too poor to raise bail.

With jail and prison beds costing $15,000 to $30,000 per bed per year -- while fiscal squeezes cut back every other critical function of our state and local governments -- this is sheer insanity.

Our police, courts and prisons ''are never held accountable for the effectiveness of their performance,'' notes George Washington University's Prof. William Chambliss, in a paper for the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives. Indeed, he says, ''the worse job they do the more funds they demand.''

While failing to deter wrongdoing, the police dragnet is making jailbirds of startling numbers of young males. The center's director, Jerome Miller, points with alarm to a California attorney general's office report showing that between 1974 and 1985, one in three of all California males between 18 and 29 years of age were arrested and brought to jail. Sixty-seven percent of young black men were booked.

Mr. Miller is finding even grimmer figures -- incarceration rates among 18-35 year-old blacks as high as 90 percent -- in Duval County (Jacksonville), Florida. He estimates over half of young white males from blue-collar and urban backgrounds, and a high majority of blacks, are at one time in their lives brought to jail, given a mug shot and therefore a record.

''We have substituted arrest for all our problems -- we just throw people into jail,'' he charges. ''We've succeeded in bringing the whole prison subculture, cops vs. robbers ethic, into the community.'' And it becomes overwhelmingly difficult to organize hard-hit inner-city neighborhoods against crime: ''Everyone's brother or father or son has been off to jail already. The idea people will start turning each other in is just nonsense.''

There are alternatives: emptying our jails and prisons of non-violent offenders, decriminalizing minor drug offenses, community-service sentences. The risk is that in our rush to imprison anyone we consider dangerous or inconvenient, we may end up criminalizing a good portion of American society, at a frightful cost to government budgets -- and this nation's social peace -- for years to come.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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