Ready to send in the Marines to fight crime...

STILL NOT

September 24, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

STILL NOT ready to send in the Marines to fight crime, Urba America? Okay, here's Plan B.

Plan B is a much less drastic step than stationing troops in housing projects. All it requires is repealing the Eighth Amendment.

You know: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted."

One problem with this amendment is that it encourages judges to let dangerous people out on the streets on low bail or no bail while they're awaiting trial. Even when states enact preventive detention laws for dangerous defendants (as the federal government has done), judges often release these criminals prior to trial, in ritualistic deference to the Bill of Rights.

There is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between pre-trial release on bail and crime. A recent study found that about a fifth of individuals granted pre-trial release were rearrested before they were tried. Probably another fifth or more commited crimes and weren't caught. (By the way, the man who killed a Howard County woman in a car hijacking was out of jail on pre-trial release.) If a dangerous person could be required to post, say, oh, $1 million bail, he'd stay in jail.

Another problem with the amendment is that judges go crazy whenever the ACLU comes in and says this or that prison condition is "cruel and unusual." Judges have required prisons to provide murderers and other enemies of society with more square feet of living space than they had at home, better nutrition, more recreational facilities, etc. on the grounds that stark or onerous conditions are "cruel."

It has gotten to the point that Jesse Jackson could tell the Democratic national convention that many young men in the slums prefer prison to home life. Even if that is not true for many young criminals, it is true that prison is not as much of a deterrent as it used to be. Remove the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution and states could start making prison mean again. I say, give cruelty a chance!

Even if that turned out not to be the deterrent to lawlessness that some criminologists predict, states could afford to take more criminals off the streets. If you can lock 'em up in fewer square feet, without television, libraries and barbells, the cost per prisoner goes way down.

Many critics of the American criminal justice system say we lock up too many people as it is. They say it doesn't reduce crime, either. But in fact when incarceration rates dropped in the 1960s, crime rates soared, and then in the 1980s, when the prison population was increased dramatically, the rate of increase in crime was significantly reduced.

Constitutional amendments are not writ in stone. They can be repealed. It's been done. The Eighteenth Amendment banned the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors. The Twenty-first Amendment repealed it. That America became a kinder, gentler nation because of that, all agree.

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