Rodricks misunderstands rise in prison population

April 20, 2010

Dan Rodricks remains stubbornly obtuse about the disproportionate number of black men who are in prison or on probation or parole. Professor Michelle Alexander affords him an occasion to renew his ignorance ("Jim Crow alive and well in prison system," April 8).

Mr. Rodricks observes that "in the mid-1970s, the U.S. prison population was about 300,000. Today it is roughly 2.4 million. ... During the time of this explosion in prison populations, drug arrests climbed while property crime and violent crime dropped." Quoting Ms. Alexander, Mr. Rodricks alleges that "'It has been changes in our laws — particularly the dramatic increases in the length of prison sentences — that have been responsible for the growth of our prison system, not increases in crime.'"

Mr. Rodricks neglects to point out that the 1970s witnessed a dramatic increase of American crime in all categories and thus fails to entertain the possibility that the dramatic growth of prisons was a response — unsubtle, to be sure, but most effective — to a crime rate that was going through the roof.

Some years ago New York City noticed that cracking down on petty offenses like jumping the turnstile in the subway, shoplifting, panhandling aggressively and the like, produced a dramatic reduction in the commission of much more serious crimes. Arrest a fare-beater, you might find a guy with a gun. New York City now has a homicide rate eight times less than the city of Baltimore's.

By the same token, the relentless prosecution and incarceration of drug offenders has led precisely to the mysterious drop in the rate of violent crime and property crime noted by Ms. Alexander and Mr. Rodricks.

If Mr. Rodricks had been writing for The New York Times all these years, he would still be whining about the unfairness of prosecuting fare-beaters and shoplifters.

Now our very own "sage of Baltimore" makes a much more vicious and dangerous accusation. With Ms. Alexander, he says that "'the racially sanitized rhetoric of ‘cracking down on crime'" is where Jim Crow has gone, and lives on. If you worry so much about crime, you must be a racist.

For the umpteenth time, Dan, most of us in Baltimore have noticed that the vast majority of the victims of black criminals are black. It is black neighborhoods that are much more likely to be ravaged by drugs, and it is black men, of whom you fancy yourself the champion, who are getting killed.

Harold Riedl, Baltimore

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