Could putting many in prison be helping to cut crime?

May 08, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

MARK MAUER, associate director of the Sentencing Project, is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal with a dyed-in-the-wool liberal approach to crime. Take, for example, how he thinks judges should handle a drug offender who disdains treatment after being sentenced to it instead of jail time.

"They should be returned to drug treatment," Mauer told those attending a symposium on inequity in sentencing held at the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work Monday. Asked how many times he would send an addict who scoffed at treatment to yet another treatment program, Mauer admitted he didn't know. But, being a liberal, it should not surprise us if the number reached into triple digits.

The symposium was organized by Raising Awareness In Sentencing Equity (R.A.I.S.E), a group of UMB social work students who want answers to why so many young black men are in prison, on parole or on probation. Their hearts are in the right place. But when they gather a panel to talk about criminal justice issues, R.A.I.S.E members might want to consider putting a few conservative voices on it.

In addition to Mauer, the panel members were Joseph Meyer, clinical director of the Maryland Youth Residence Center; Nathan Keys, owner of a local bail-bond company; and Lori James-Monroe, a UMB professor and president of the National Association of Sentencing Advocates. Dr. Aminifu Harvey, another UMB professor, was the moderator. All expressed typical liberal angst about the horrendous number of young black men in the criminal justice system. The result was the traditional liberal, hand-wringing whinefest.

There was Keys, fretting about recidivism and asking, "What's the purpose of jail? When do we stop this continuing cycle of people going to prison?" There was Meyer, lamenting the proliferation of prisons across the nation and noting, with a touch of down-home folksy humor that "building prisons is like building highways: If you build them, they will come."

Harvey excoriated those who are making prisons America's new growth industry. The only relief was James-Monroe, who talked about growing up poor in first the Murphy Homes and then the Perkins Homes and whose mother raised enough money to finally move the family to Columbia. James-Monroe eventually got a degree from Morgan State University, but the moral of her story seemed lost on the other panelists: If you're black and poor but act like you have some sense, you'll probably avoid the clutches of the criminal justice system.

But the worst offender was Mauer. After correctly noting that the black homicide rate and the crime rate in general have declined while there are an additional 1.5 million people behind bars, he went to the quintessential liberal reason: Crime in black communities is down, Mauer pontificated, because "guns got taken out of many communities." Duh. Might not a plummeting crime rate and fewer homicides be a result of those 1.5 million extra folks being in prison?

That's the one question this panel refused to address during the question-and-answer period: Just what do we do with murderers, rapists, muggers and burglars? One man in the audience asked Keys whether there was a need for prisons. Keys gave the ever-irritating "yes-but" answer. Yes, there's a need, but recidivism persists because prisons fail to rehabilitate.

Several members of the audience agreed, but a conservative panel member might have pointed out that the main purpose of prison is not to rehabilitate, but to punish and separate. The addict who smashes the car window of a law-abiding citizen to steal valuables that can be sold for drugs might actually be safer behind bars. Separating the addict from that community saves the citizen the trouble of leaving the offender lying in an alley with his kneecaps removed.

It's quite the pity that R.A.I.S.E. members didn't put themselves on the panel. In one of their handouts they quoted data from Mauer's Sentencing Project that one in three young black men are in prison, on parole or on probation.

"What are the other two-thirds doing right?" R.A.I.S.E. members asked.

Yes. What indeed.

Enough already. Will the unidentified caller of the past two Saturdays please give it a rest?

This pest called to respond to my columns on gun control. Fair enough. But on April 24 he accused me of having "blood on my hands" because of my opposition to gun control.

"You had a brother that was killed with a firearm," he charged. "What an idiot." Last week, he claimed that "logic escapes you."

Dear Pest: Reading comprehension escapes you. I've written in no fewer than four columns that my youngest brother was stabbed to death, not shot. Ponder that while you consider who the real idiot is, and remember: Reading comprehension is our friend.

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