I’m a rough boy

We use labels very recklessly in our society. In fact, labels often do most of our thinking for us. The words democratic and republican immediately call into being a host of judgments in their respective users, and for a more dramatic example, one can easily remember a time when the label “black” came along with a host of various value judgments.

It’s remarkable to  me how in each age, we, as a society realize that certain labels are no good anymore and cannot be used to stand in for serious thinking about something. We learned that “black” doesn’t mean lazy (well, we’re trying), and we unlearned the idea that “communist” meant spy (McCarthy) and we’re trying to come to grips with the idea that “gay” doesn’t mean weak or disgusting. How in the world though does the GENERAL LESSON keep escaping us: that labels can never do our thinking for us. I find it to be a testament to the unbelievable inertia to ways of thinking about things.

Rather than lament the transcendental limitations of our species to see problems when they arise, I want to focus on a specific label that I can think has gone unexamined for a long period of time.

The label is “soft on crime.” Politicians have a hard time going NEAR any reforms that could be perceived to be letting criminals get off with less punishment. People who try to get better conditions for prisoners are basically talking to walls, and interventions such as mental health courts, drug courts, recidivism programs, job training, after school programs and and on and on get NO ATTENTION in serious policy debates.

We have a lively debate on this country from everything from energy to war, and at least, in these debates, one can say that both sides are at least represented (though we know, they are often represented very poorly). Not so with crime. When is the last time you heard any politicians with any power seriously discuss what to do about about our skyrocketing prison population? The war on drugs continues year after year despite being one of what I consider to be the least defensible policy decision in this country.

It would be boring to just sit here and whine about the usual problems. A bunch of black people are in prison for drug crimes and our prisons are overpopulated and dangerous. Recidivism is very high, on and on. Waa Waa. But see this chart just in case you’re interested. It’s a good chart, and I looked for a while before picking it (though I can’t understand why it’s so damn fuzzy).

What I want to point out is the way that our attitude of being “hard on crime” or “tough on crime” or whatever, costs our society in even immeasurable and insidious ways. Chief among these is the way that the prevailing attitude that tough on crime means “doing shit to people that is really harsh” results in a lot of outrageous prosecutorial behavior and innocent people being convicted. Scott Turow’s book Ultimate Punishment that I just read outlines prosecutor conduct that is just straight OUTRAGEOUS. Not only, a vindictive mentality surrounding crime puts innocent people at risk by encouraging prosecutors to FIND SOMEONE.

Texas, has a huge problem with this, though luckily the new Dallas DA is working very hard to end this.

This article is quite revealing and you’ll definitely want to read it if you’re a Texan. This new DA is basically instituting all these procedures to make sure that innocent people aren’t getting executed or spending life in prison and he is being branded as “soft on crime.” To me that’s just laughable. He’s trying to use DNA evidence to correct witness testimony that has been scientifically demonstrated to be unreliable so that the right people are in jail. It’s very sad to me that he even has to defend himself against allegations like “soft on crime.”

Being soft on crime is one of the worst things you can be, and the ways to win this label are mind-blowingly broad, even though many highly respected research groups keep trying to tell us that there could be huge savings from thinking for FIVE-SECONDS about crime and its relationship to society.

Here’s a quote

Estimates that about one-quarter of
the drop in crime during the 1990s can
be attributed to incarceration do not
inform us about whether reliance upon
incarceration was the most effective way
to achieve these results. A variety of
research demonstrates that investments
in drug treatment, interventions with
at-risk families, and school completion
programs are more cost-effective than
expanded incarceration as crime control
measures. Regarding drug use, a RAND
analysis concluded that the expenditure
of $1 million to expand mandatory
minimum sentencing would result in a
national decrease in drug consumption
of 13 kilograms, while dedicating those
funds to drug treatment would reduce
consumption by 100 kilograms.24 In
another analysis, researchers concluded
that shifting the federal drug budget
to reduce funds earmarked for supply
reduction by 25% and doubling treatment
funding would decrease cocaine
consumption by 20 metric tons and save
over $5 billion.25 In addition, every $1
invested in drug treatment returns more
than $7 in savings to society, as opposed
to a net loss of nearly 70 cents for
enforcement approaches.26

Now there is such a thing as being “soft on crime.” One really could naively give too much leeway to criminals in the justice system and hurt deterrence by lowering sentencing, but as near as I can tell, we are not close to that point yet. We incarcerate a bunch of people at very high expense and its something that is not even SERIOUSLY discussed, because politicians are so worried about appearing soft on crime.

This brings me to my final point of this post, which is that politicians must be leaders in order to earn our trust, and we must reward leaders when they act properly. Without that two-relationship of trust, representative democracy breaks apart. If you ever watch “Meet the Press with David Gregory,” there is an interesting and depressing theme that he often plays out. He often asks Republican legislators that come on his show to definitively reject the claim that Obama is not a U.S. citizen (polls show that something like 20% of all Americans believe Obama is not a citizen). He says something very simple to these lawmakers. He says “you are one of the leaders of this country. Is it not a requirement of political leadership that you dispel these false beliefs on the part of many of your constituents?” It is really surprising how many of these legislators will not come out and say, in plain English, in a simple sentence, in four words: Obama is a citizen. It’s just unbelievable. And I don’t mean to target Republicans, Democrats are guilty of ridiculous stuff like this as well. You might as well ask Democrats, “is there any evidence that Jared Loughner was influenced by political rhetoric?” I’m sure many would not just simply admit that there is none.

This is a sad state of affairs, because leaders have to be courageous in order to command our respect, but it seems that, as I’ve mentioned many times on the blog, the concept of respect — a complex and nuanced notion — is being replaced by other modes of approval such as “liking” “supporting” “preferring” or “agreeing with” all of which require much less brainpower and are completely unreflective. This creates a violent cycle where leaders must pander, which makes them seem like hopeless demagogues, and then we see them as hopeless demagogues and lose faith in their ability to lead.

This cycle of cynicism has continued for at least two decades now, and I see no end to it in American politics. The long term results of this will be disastrous.

PS: Even John McCain in his 2000 campaign (see “Up, Simba,” which I analyzed here) had to defend himself against the charge that he was soft on crime, even though he was, in that campaign, for vast new initiatives to fight the war on drugs.

ZZ Top, I’m a rough boy.


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