June 9, 2014

On ending mass incarceration – a modest proposal

Recently, an opinion piece appeared in The New York Times under the title:

The article puts forth a great deal of interesting material, and it is beyond my purpose here to address it all.  Instead, I will focus on a single passage that arrested my attention:

“After prison, people are sent back to the impoverished places they came from, but are blocked from re-entering society. Often they cannot vote, get jobs, or receive public benefits like subsidized housing — all of which would improve their odds of staying out of trouble.”

I don’t doubt for an instant that the Times has put its smudgy finger on a real problem.  While it isn’t at all clear how losing the right to vote pushes a person back into crime, it is undeniable that a released convict has to live somewhere, and shouldn’t to be forced back into criminal activity by an utter lack of other options.  No matter how high the rate of recidivism happens to be, those who truly want to live crime-free, productive lives ought to be given that chance.  That is basic decency.  Unfortunately, the lives of human beings are never simple, and when you consider the aggregate problems of communities the complexity only increases.  

Unless you make the assumption that the vast majority of the prisoners the Times is referring to are wholly innocent – simply rounded up at random and convicted automatically by a blind, cruel, and dysfunctional judicial system – you have to accept that most of them are in fact guilty of the crimes they were charged with, and that a certain fraction of those are going to commit crimes again if given the opportunity.  If rehabilitation programs were reliably effective, we probably would not have resorted to mass incarceration in the first place.

While the Times article laments the injustice of those imprisoned for “non-violent crimes” it is misleading to imply that these are typically petty matters.  Burglary is not a violent crime.  Neither is stealing your grandmother’s social security check to finance your drug habit – a crime, by the way, that no urban social worker working with the elderly would find unusual.  Breaking into cars is not a violent crime, and neither, most of the time, is stealing the cars themselves.  Commit to a generous program of sentence reduction of non-violent criminals and you are committing to increasing the amount of crime in somebody’s neighborhood.  The question is – whose?

I, for one, would not recommend summarily encouraging ex-convicts to return to the slums and ghettos that most of them came from.  Notwithstanding the considerable value the Times suggests that crack addicts and car thieves might offer as role models for their abandoned children, these neighborhoods are already hard pressed.  An extra helping of shoplifting and break-ins isn’t really what the minority business owner needs as he, or she, struggles against the headwinds of a bad economy and an impoverished clientele.  If there is ever going to be an increase in the standard of living in such places, they are going to need healthy businesses creating decent jobs – and giving a boost to the criminal population runs counter to that purpose.

With the phrase “…benefits like subsidized housing…” the Times points the way to a program that the elites of our society are nearly oblivious to, but which strikes dread into the hearts of many in the middle class.  Most people support the notion of equality as an abstract ideal – but they live in the cleanest, safest, least-graffiti-covered neighborhoods they can afford to.  Most middle class neighborhoods are, believe it or not, already quite racially diverse.  They are full of people, black, white and otherwise, who were either born into the middle class, or who managed, by their own honest efforts, to lift themselves out of poverty.  Heartless though the barrier of higher rents and mortgage costs may be, practically no one in the middle class really wants a sudden influx of the poor into their neighborhoods.  This isn’t racism.  Middle class blacks and Latinos do not really want them either.  Of course, the majority of people living in poverty are decent people, but it is simply a fact that the most antisocial or otherwise dysfunctional among us tend to sink to the socio-economic bottom, being unable to meet the minimum threshold of social responsibility one needs to stay in the middle class.  To be blunt, crack addicts and car thieves don’t generally have good credit, and don’t buy houses in the suburbs.  Unfortunately, the rest of the poor have to live with the stigma of being lumped in with the lumpenproletariat.  Housing programs, particularly Section 8 subsidies in which the government pays the lion’s share (usually 70%) of a recipient’s rent, often let the poor jump over this barrier without any special effort.  Even with restrictions barring these subsidies to ex-convicts, enough bad cultural traits get through to make a scattering of subsidized housing in a middle class neighborhood a cause of sharp decline.1  Removing the restriction against ex-convicts is a depressing thought for anyone who likes their current neighborhood, and must be doubly discouraging for those members of the middle class who have worked their way out of poverty.  How would you feel if you had escaped a slum through your own hard work – only to have the government build a new hostile environment around you?

Having eliminated the two poorer classes from contention as the recipients of a million-odd ex-cons the Times feels are the victims of injustice, we are left with only one place to put them – and this is my proposal.  Settle them among the rich.  This scheme has quite a number of advantages.  First, it would give policy makers and opinion shapers (including the editorial board of the New York Times) a chance to experience cultural diversity first hand.  And who better to reform the wayward and disadvantaged than the most moral, most advantaged members of our society?  Second, the most affluent neighborhoods in the country have the greatest abundance of entry-level, unskilled jobs available – since it is generally beneath the dignity of the children of the rich to even consider such non-professional employment.  Wouldn’t it be better to have resident ex-convict waiters, cashiers, valets, gardeners, etc. – than to have to bus such people in from poor or middle class neighborhoods across town?  Consider how much of a reduction in an affluent community’s total carbon footprint the transportation savings could amount to.  Why settle convicts in Oakland when we could settle them in the more uplifting parts of Berkeley, or maybe Marin County?  Does anyone doubt that a disadvantaged soul from SE Washington would find more opportunities of all kinds in Bethesda or Georgetown?  From New York City’s Upper East Side, visiting relatives in the South Bronx on the weekends would be the easiest (and greenest) of subway journeys.  Why not build some half-way houses in the Hamptons?  Or a colony of convicts on the shores of Martha’s Vineyard – a sort of Botany Bay among the best and brightest?

Although the high cost of housing in such areas is an obvious objection, it is not beyond the government’s scope to invoke its right of imminent domain.  Failing that, the lower and the middle classes would probably be overjoyed to pony up the added taxes in the interest of their own self preservation.  Here too, settling convicts among the wealthiest Americans might go a long way toward alleviating the growing sense of inequality among the classes.  Let us share, on fair and equal terms, this legacy suffering, injustice and inconsequential non-violent crime.  What could be more moral, more impressive to the rest of the world than to have the great and powerful make such sacrifices?  Nor would this resettlement need to be in any way partisan.  Build section 8 apartments next to the Koch brothers and George Soros alike.  Build them next to Bill O’Reilly and next to Whoopi Goldberg too.  If there is crime, the rich have more than enough resources to protect themselves in more-or-less the same way many of the poor have done – by making their houses into little fortresses with bars on the windows and doors.  This is really what the rich have always done in any case, except that their barricades are usually more sophisticated – and erected further out.

In the real world, of course, the burden of living with crime will be saddled, one way or the other, on people that policy makers, media figures, and academics don’t really care about.  Prisons produce alarming statistics, but a million crimes perpetrated by the anti-social elements of the poor against the rest of their equally poor neighbors rarely disturb the after-dinner conversation in the places where decisions are made.  And, after all, it is the appearance of caring that matters – the moralizing, the wringing of hands over the fates of the correctly fashionable set of victims, the crying and shouting that the culture tacitly requires.  None of that has a damned thing to do with genuine human empathy.  One needs to know some real people to have a sense of empathy – and nobody really wants those people in their backyard.


1 I have seen this happen personally, having lived on the edge of a ghetto for more than a decade, and then in a middle class neighborhood that was in decline. There is no need to take my word for it, however:

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