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March 17, 2016

Thoughtful nuanced comments from George Will on modern crime and punishment

The Washington Post has published this astute new commentary by Geoge Will under the headline "Sentencing reform alone won’t fix crime and punishment in America." I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts and ends:

Sen. John Cornyn recalls visiting a Texas prison where some inmates taking shop classes could not read tape measures. Cornyn, who was previously a district court judge and Texas Supreme Court justice, knows that prisons are trying to teach literacy and vocations, trying to cope with the mental illnesses of many inmates and trying to take prophylactic measures to prevent drug-related recidivism by people imprisoned for drug offenses.  “The criminal-justice system,” he says, “has become by default a social services provider.”

It is not, however, equipped to perform so many functions.  Cornyn, a Republican, is part of a bipartisan congressional group negotiating sentencing reform, one of many needed repairs of the criminal-justice system.  What justice requires, frugality encourages: Too many people are in prison for too long, and too often, at a financial cost disproportionate to the enhancement of public safety....

Old theories about the causes of crime need to be rethought.  During the Great Depression, unemployment soared to 25 percent, yet in many cities crime fell.  Demographic factors?  Crime rates often vary with the size of society’s cohort of young males: Crime declined considerably during World War II not just, or even primarily, because unemployment was negligible but also because so many young males were in military discipline.

In 2010, one year after the Great Recession’s jobs destruction doubled the unemployment rate, the property crime rate fell and violent crime reached a 40-year low.  Current high incarceration rates had something to do with that.  But how much?  James Q. Wilson, the most accomplished social scientist since World War II, accepted the estimate that increased incarceration explains “one-quarter or more of the crime decline.”  Wilson also suggested an environmental factor: “For decades, doctors have known that children with lots of lead in their blood are much more likely to be aggressive, violent and delinquent.”  Since the 1970s, lead has been removed from gasoline and paint for new homes, and “the amount of lead in Americans’ blood fell by four-fifths between 1975 and 1991.”  Wilson cited a study that ascribed more than half the 1990s’ decline in crime to the reduction of gasoline lead.  Clearly, sentencing reform is just one piece of a complex policy puzzle.

March 17, 2016 at 12:31 AM | Permalink


Fat chance that lead from paint has anything to do with the crime rate.

Try societys attitude in general on, alcohol consumption. Then Madd crew getting states to lower the Bac to .1" then .08, and once again they want ut down to .06. Are they ever going to be satisfied. Owis have had a lot to do with making criminals out of young lads and lasses. I know if a few, one in particular. It was cold and she went out to ger car to gave a smoke, started it up, fired up a few smokes, bingo. She is now a felon.

So uf she cant get a ride to wirk via a bus line and she lives away from her home town.
Bingo, now she drives to work and gets wacked again. She would be better off, just quitting work and sign up for full medicaid support like 2/3 of chicagos residents.

Chicago had 3000 shootings last yr and Im sure all if them had a registered gun and their foid card. So lets make more laws on guns and ammos, so only the bad boys have them. The high up snobs dont get it.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Mar 17, 2016 5:40:37 PM

The commentary that stands out for me is that from 2000 to 2007 the legislature created a new crime every week. The crime wave is related to how many behaviors are designated criminal and how many public employees are hired to investigate and prosecute them.

Posted by: beth | Mar 17, 2016 7:51:36 PM

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