Wednesday, October 05, 2005

New whine in an old battle

Charles Shaw, writing in something called Newtopia Magazine ("A Journal of the New Counterculture"), tells us how a stretch in prison turned his head around. (The home page notifies us that the magazine/web site is closing down, so by the time you read this, link rot may have set in.) In his piece titled "A Less Fashionable War," he says:
… As the rare upper-middle class educated White American in prison, I found myself in a truly alien, self-perpetuating world of crushing poverty and ignorance, violent dehumanization, institutionalized racism, and an entire sub-culture of recidivists, some of whom had done nine and ten stints, many dating back to the Seventies. Most used prison as a form of criminal networking knowing full well they would be left to fend for themselves when released. We were told on many occasions that an inmate was worth more inside prison than back in society. Considering it costs an average of $37,000 a year to incarcerate offenders, and the average income for Black Americans is $24,000, and only $8,000-12,000 for poor Blacks, one can easily see their point.
Well, no, not that easily. The cost of incarcerating offenders is borne by society, in principle, as the cost of keeping someone deemed to be dangerous in a place where he is no longer a threat to people outside it, or as a deterrent against others endangering the public. The average income for "Black Americans" (I thought "African Americans" was now the politically correct term), if the figure is correct, is the average price at which the market values the labor of individuals in this group. The numbers are measuring different things, so the comparison is meaningless — it's like comparing the cost of upkeep for a car with the value of a plot of land.

Notice, too, the fast shuffle involved in that "and only $8,000-$12,000 for poor Blacks." How did he obtain these numbers? Presumably by discovering that some blacks have an income in that range, and quite reasonably describing them as poor. But so what? Is a white person whose income is $8,000–$12,000 less poor?

Shaw continues:
The Chicago Tribune reported this year that about two-thirds of the more than 600,000 ex-convicts released in 2005 will be re-arrested within three years, and about half will return to prison for a new crime or violation of parole. Despite having “paid their debt to society”, once released their punishment is not nearly over. These days there is little to no hope of any real reform, as within the various Departments of Corrections, “correction” is a painfully misleading euphemism for the warehousing of offenders. There are few, if any, re-entry programs for ex-offenders and virtually no jobs or social services to help keep them afloat in an increasingly difficult and unforgiving society. Thus, most ex-offenders have no choice but to return to their old crime infested neighborhoods, destitute and desperate to survive any way they can.
I can sympathize. As an office professional, I too will have no useful re-entry programs, jobs services or social services to turn to if my employer should one day invite me to take a permanent holiday. I too fear that an increasingly difficult and unforgiving society will not be there for me. Therefore, no prospect is in view other than a life of crime. I'm looking for a good course in Advanced Mugging Technique.
A significant majority of the new crimes or parole violations are drug related, often nothing more than testing positive on a monthly drug screen.
Agreeing to stay off drugs seems to me a rather mild penalty for being released on parole. If a former inmate doesn't keep his end of the bargain, even knowing that he'll be drug tested, why shouldn't he be banged up again if conditions for parole are going to mean anything at all?
I cannot begin to recount all the men I met, particularly those with prior records or those on parole, who were re-incarcerated for crimes they did not commit, simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Gasps! Not possible! Lies! Propaganda! Our system is just! True it is, for those who can afford justice in the form of a bond and a private lawyer, or for those whom the system is not already unduly prejudiced. But in a system with corrupt cops eager for arrests, zealous State’s Attorneys eager for convictions, jaded and overwhelmed Public Defenders eager for quick pleas, and rigid bond judges eager to set bail far beyond what anyone in their socio-economic class could reasonably afford, there is little opportunity for a fair trial.
I am lucky to have done small socializing with the criminal class, but others acquainted with the milieu have told me about it, and I believe I am on safe ground pointing out to Shaw that those who get caught are virtually always, in their minds, innocent — stitched up by the System, just happened to be in the wrong place (like at the handle end of a gun) when the bust went down.

Still, there is something in what he says. Prosecutors get ahead in their careers by racking up convictions, and one way to do that is by not having any convictions about who is really guilty and who isn't, but only whether a good case can be made or not. And court-appointed defense lawyers don't give themselves to the job as they would for a client forking over $300 an hour — that's wrong, but human nature is what it is — and perhaps honestly feel that getting a decent plea bargain is the best service they can do for their client.
Thirty years ago Gore Vidal noted that “roughly 80% of police work in the United States has to do with the regulation of our private morals…controlling what we drink, eat, smoke, put into our veins…with whom and how we have sex or gamble.” Then there were roughly 250,000 prisoners in the nation. Today there is more than 2 million, with another million in county jails awaiting trial or sentencing, and another roughly 3 million under “correctional supervision” on probation or parole. The total national cost of incarceration then was $4 billion annually; today it’s $64 billion, with another $20 billion in federal money and $22-24 billion in money from state governments earmarked for waging the so-called “War on Drugs.” Nationally, around 60% or more of these prisoners are drug criminals. Yet, throughout all this time and expense there has not been the slightest decrease in either drug use or supply. …

No matter how much money the government pours into the War on Drugs, it doesn’t appear to make a dent in drug use or drug-related crime. The body count in this “war” still rises. Dead and corrupted cops, dead gang youth, dead traffickers and couriers, dead innocent bystanders—the urban “collateral damage”—devastated families, addiction, disease, overdoses from unregulated, poor quality drugs, exploding prisons, crushing costs, corrupt officials, craven politicians, sensationalist media, and a limitless harvest of offenders. Where does the madness end?
Too right. Gore Vidal's 80 percent figure was, and is, almost surely much exaggerated; but it's hard to doubt that, if it were possible to win a "war on drugs," the peace treaty would be in a glass case in a museum by now. And sending kids to jail with hardened criminals for possession, or even sale, of minusucle amounts of marijuana is just plain inhumane, not to mention counter-productive.

Unfortunately, Shaw can't resist turning the problem into a racial issue:
And amidst all the talk of race as a factor in the Katrina disaster let us not forget a bigger disaster: One in every 20 black men over the age of 18 is in prison compared to 1 in 180 White men. Despite African Americans comprising only 12% of the total population, in five states, including Illinois, the ratio of Black to White prisoners is 13 to 1. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that Blacks comprise 56.7% of all drug offenders admitted to state prisons while Whites comprise only 23.3% (in my Illinois prison—one of 28 in the State—of the 1,076 inmates, 689 were Black, 251 were White, and 123 were Latino). Based upon these numbers, a full 30% of African-Americans will see time in prison during their life, compared with only 5% of White Americans, even though White drug users outnumber Blacks by a five-to-one margin.
The implication is that courts are not equal-opportunity jailers and punish blacks more than whites. But the percentages he offers are, again, meaningless as evidence for the point he wants to make. The ratio could logically be cited simply to show that a higher percentage of blacks commit crimes than whites. True, the statistics don't prove that either, but they certainly don't prove the opposite.

And where did he come up with the statement that "White drug users outnumber Blacks by a five-to-one margin"? Once again, even if that could somehow be shown to be correct, he is mixing up two disparate classes of data — numbers and percentages. Since there are quite a few more whites than blacks in this country, it is conceivable that white drug users outnumber black users (although the five-times-more figure seems absurd), but that says nothing at all about which group has a larger percentage of users, much less whether there is disproportionate sentencing. Shaw just appears to inhabit that leftist world where oppression of minority ethnic groups is a given.

It's too bad, really, because despite all that ideological baggage he is reminding us of an unpleasant truth about the drug war dementia. I am no longer as convinced as I used to be that legalizing hard drugs ("under medical supervision" or whatever) is an easy alternative — Britain tried that, and has backed off; and I'm told that Amsterdam is full of pathetic junkies.

But there are too damn many people in American jails for nonviolent crimes committed against, if anyone, themselves.

1 comment:

David said...

It's very hard to believe that 80% of the police work involves "regulation of private morals"...unless one believes that "private morals" includes things like speeding and illegal parking...