In his latest constituent newsletter, California State Senator Dave Cox confuses coincidence with causation by connecting imprisonment with lower crime rates. He also rejects the notion that California imprisons too many, saying: “California’s incarceration rate [is] very ordinary with at least 20 other states reporting more inmates per 100,000 residents.”
But trying to second guess what might deter a not-too-bright drug addict with poor impulse control is at least uncertain. So connecting the threat of incarceration with crime rates is, at best, tenuous. And would more severe penalties than fines and “country club” prisons deter white collar crime? That seldom comes up.
For the last 40 years, Canadian crime has paralleled U.S. rates, but since 1980 the U.S. has quadrupled its prison population while Canadian imprisonment rates have remained flat. So did imprisoning people produce a decline in crime? Not if Canada is any indication. “Freakonomics” economist Stephen Levitt concludes that legalizing abortion caused a decline in U.S. crime, and debunks the myth that more Draconian penalties were responsible.
Senator Cox — formerly the Republican leader of the State Senate and a particularly pernicious Sacramento County Supervisor before that — also ignores the biggest elephant in the room: how the U.S.– even California — compares to the rest of the world. With less than 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prisoners, five times more than worldwide rates, and 10 times more than the Europeans. The New York Times says that, several European countries have higher annual admissions to prison per capita, but American prison terms are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.
Cox concludes that California needs “more investment in early interventions and rehabilitation programs as well as additional [prison] facilities.” — leading this writer to believe that he is at least considering something other the current “war” on crime. Nevertheless, Cox only laments that in the last decade “California has added almost 5 million … to its population but has opened only one new prison.”
The prime culprit for our bulging prisons is drug arrests. They have more than tripled in the last 25 years, to a record 1.8 million in 2005, says the Sentencing Project. The “war” on drugs has increased the number of incarcerated drug offenders by 1100% since 1980. During this same period, drug use declined by half (that’s 50%, not 1100%).
Twelve Step programs like AA say drug users are sick, not criminal. This means making “war” on drug addicts is like making “war” on diabetics — cruel, inhumane and, if the crime in Canada and overall drug use is any guide, ineffective.
So will we see more investment in “early intervention and rehabilitation”? No. Cox and his Republican colleagues in California’s state government reject early intervention programs like extended or paid childcare leave as “job killers,” and are adamant about not funding any new programs.
Thanks to Proposition 13, some additional tax cuts, paying for Enron’s “deregulated” electricity and a reduction in vehicle license fee, California now has a multi-billion dollar structural budget deficit. Nevertheless, the state’s prisons are under a federal court order to upgrade their medical services and decrease overcrowding.
So Senator Cox may try to preserve prisons from the budget axe by stirring the vengeful feelings of his constituents, but prisons are ineffective as a deterrent to crime, and recent polling suggests they are the least popular public expense.
Cox’s stance is typical of budget “cutters.” Cuts exempt their favorite programs. Considering how few alternatives Cox offers, one has to wonder whether the Senator is really trying to perform public service by spreading such half-truths, or if he is just trying to serve the prison-industrial complex, by taking prison budget reductions off the table.
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