Crime and Punishment


September 20, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- That was a poignant headline in The Su last Sunday: "Grief vies with disbelief as Basu is laid to rest." The story beneath it was a report of the funeral services of Pam Basu, mother and scientist, dragged to her death in Howard County by car-jackers.

There has been grief aplenty at this horrible and stupid crime, God knows, but disbelief is hardly the word. Disbelief implies incredulity, but we are incredulous no longer. We have learned that in 1992 acts of violence such as this can occur anywhere and at any time, and that when those who commit them are caught and punished, the punishment actually imposed will to a reasonable person appear appallingly light.

The death of Mrs. Basu was followed by a predictable clamor. There were cries for tougher laws and for more police protection. Governor Schaefer, among others, proposed increasing the sentences for convicted car-jackers. He went so far as to say that the death penalty could be in order for car-jackers who murder.

This is all fine, as far as it goes, but it misses an important point. The young men who commit most of the violent crimes in our country are not deterred by laws, nor by the prospect of prison. Time in jail, they have learned, can be a positive experience, an important step to becoming stronger, harder and more respected on the streets.

The New York Times reported in some detail last Sunday on this unsettling new cultural development. Young men who have gone to prison are now likely to say that it's simply something that almost everyone they know does, just as a generation or two back almost everyone served in the Army. It means a period of structured and restricted but not unpleasant living, and those who have completed their hitch can feel a certain pride, a reinforced sense of manhood.

With this in mind, what should a just society do about crimes such as the car-jacking murder of Pam Basu, and how should they be deterred? The common-sense answers have been highly unfashionable for the last couple of decades, but they're starting to attract attention once again.

To begin with, a just society should impose serious punishment for serious crimes. For some crimes, including most murders, this should almost certainly mean capital punishment. A society that doesn't treat its killers severely not only isn't just, not only forfeits the respect of the guilty and the innocent alike, but has the blood of the victims on its hands.

New laws alone won't help much. By itself, Governor Schaefer's proposal to make murder-while-car-jacking a capital crime means little. It won't be worth taking seriously until murderers start being put to death in numbers appropriate to the murder rate.

This may never happen. But if a society that aspires to be just cannot bring itself to execute its murderers, then it's obligated to do something else with them. About the only alternative is permanent incarceration. "Warehousing" is a pejorative term in the language of penology, but secure warehousing -- no matter how unpleasant or dehumanizing -- is exactly what's needed. On the whole, execution is more humane.

In addition to punishing criminals promptly, visibly and effectively, what else can a just society do to provide the stability and safety that progress requires? It can establish a low tolerance for disorder. In this country, the realization is gradually dawning that this is not a euphemism for racial oppression. In fact, it's a recipe for greater racial harmony, for it serves the interest of all races.

In a speech earlier this year, the black economist Thomas Sowell recalled growing up in Harlem in the 1940s. He observed that more black males passed the difficult entrance examination for Stuyvesant High School in 1938 than in 1983, though in 1983 the black population of New York was much larger.

He observed that while during his school days the test scores of black students in Harlem were a bit lower than those of white students in affluent areas, they were generally comparable to those of white students from working-class New York neighborhoods. Those who succeeded in the Harlem schools then, he said, had received a solid education. They had been prepared to go out into the world and compete.

The Harlem students of Mr. Sowell's generation had plenty of disadvantages, including de facto segregated schools; few black teachers to serve as role models; no teachers' aides; no "community input;" no concern that teaching be "innovative" or "exciting." But they did have an orderly school environment, without security guards or metal detectors. It was an environment in which learning was possible.

Re-establish order in the streets, and you can re-establish it in the schools. Re-establish it in the schools, and you can raise school standards. Raise school standards, and you can improve neighborhoods. Improve neighborhoods, and you can improve tax revenues and make possible better government services. There is nothing secret or mysterious about this process, but it has to start with order.

Re-establishing order in the streets -- and at the filling stations where the car-jackers wait -- requires not one step, but many taken together. It requires a coherent public philosophy that demands the appropriate and prompt punishment of criminals and the strong support of government policy for the law-abiding majority, regardless of race.

Speedy justice in the Pam Basu murder case won't produce safe streets. Stamping out car-jacking won't do that either. But we have to start somewhere, and it might as well be here, and now.

Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.

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