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August 17, 2008

A good question about prison nation ... dodged

Though I did not have a chance to watch the forum at Saddleback Church put together last night by Reverend Rick Warren (which sounds as if it was quite interesting), I am pleased to learn that someone has finally asked the candidates about US incarceration rates.  According to this post at TalkLeft, Rev. Warren "asked about the contrast between the investment America makes in its educational system and the investment it makes in its 'we're number one!' prison system."

According to the TalkLeft post, both candidates talked about education policy and avoided the "prison nation" part of the question.  I suppose I am not surprised, but I am deeply disappointed.  Especially with a religion-oriented crowd, this question presented a great opportunity for one or both of the candidates to discuss the need for our criminal justice system to put more faith in the possibility of human redemption.  In addition, the question's justifiable suggestion of a zero-sum game in the local funding of prisons and schools, one or both of the candidates could and should have used this question to stress the need to shift tough-on-crime political attitudes toward smart-on-crime policy solutions.

Because I did not see the Saddleback forum, I cannot comment further on the specifics of the question and the (non) answers.  But I do want to complement Rev. Warren for asking the right kind of public policy question and question the failure of either candidate to provide the right kind of "straight talk" answer.

Some related posts on Campaign 2008:

August 17, 2008 at 01:42 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Sep 22, 2009 3:00:30 PM


Faith in human redemption can get people killed . . . .

Posted by: federalist | Aug 17, 2008 3:38:14 PM

Maybe I can get some traction here with my ideas:

I produced the following under the basic theory that any convict chosen for rehabilitation deserves enormous resources dedicated toward that end, while
those not so chosen deserve nothing more from society..

The basic plan goes as follows:

1) Upon felony conviction, of whatever level ranging from first degree murder to passing bad checks a new quasi-jury pool is chosen. These panel members,
unlike the guilt jury, come from localities where the crime did not occur. Also unlike the guilt jury they are not actually convened into a sitting panel.
The size of the pool is inversely proportional to the severity of the crimes of conviction, though never falling below a minimum threshold.

2) Each member of this new pool is approached in turn, one at a time. They are not told their order within the pool. The pool member is presented facts
about the convict, though some material is held back (race and name as race proxy being two that come immediately to my mind). A defense representative
will be part of this process to ensure that no improper information is conveyed. If any such information is conveyed then the results of that pool member
are disqualified if adverse to the convict.

3) The pool member is asked whether they wish to rehabilitate the convict. If the answer is "yes" then the convict is placed in the pool member's home
in some form of legal guardianship and is once more considered to be a juvinile for legal purposes. A stipend calculated to make the convict's presense
and rehabilitation financally neutral shall be paid in order to negate at least most cost-benefit analysis from the pool member's mind.

4) If all pool members say "no" the convict is placed in prison where they are given a chance for a normal set of appeals. When those appeals are exhausted
the convict is executed, not for the crime of conviction, but for being considered unfit for living within society.

5) Upon completion of the term of legal guardianship, the the convict is returned to full civil status with no restrictions whatsoever on their liberty.
The only time the prior conviction can be discovered through legal means is during a subsequent penalty determination.

This system is intended for use only in felony cases, misdemeanors should be reduced strictly to incarceration/fine with no other effects outliving whatever
term of probation is also given. Also no actual juvinile is to be placed in this system, though many juvinile cases make the natural parents appear as
a significant issue.

I realize the distance requirements of step 1 would be far easier to acheive in the federal system and large states like California and Texas than smaller
states. I believe this could be overcome by setting up some form of convict exchange. I include this step for the purpose of removing the convict from
an familiar environment, and hopefully make it at least somewhat more difficult to establish contact with whatever criminal element exists in the new location.

This system would also reduce the value of plea bargaining, the remaining options being immunity or a negotiated pool size larger than contemplated for
the criminal category.

I also realize that current precident would not allow the above system to be implemented and that amendment(s) would be required to effectuate that change.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 17, 2008 3:59:45 PM

Soronel, interesting idea.

"3) The pool member is asked whether they wish to rehabilitate the convict. If the answer is "yes" then the convict is placed in the pool member's home..."

Wouldn't that be almost as bad as having in-laws living in the home? Who would answer "yes"?

About the Saddleback Church question. The question was framed to elicit the responses it got. Though the lead-in reference was the number one in incarceration rate, the rest of the question was about schools, teacher quality and pay and what to do about it.

Both Obama and the Reverend Rick Warren agreed the ratio of prison inmates to high school graduation was "not good."

federalist, totalitarianism can get people killed. So can religion. So can lightening.

Posted by: George | Aug 17, 2008 4:35:10 PM

The whole point of placing the convict in someone's home is that much more thought has to go into the consideration. I expect very few murderers would get through such a choke point, though a fair number of lower level convicts would.

The sorts of pool sizes I'm thinking of are in orders of magnitude, minimum of 10, but a felony DUI may get a pool size of 1k for instance.

There are pre-conviction changes I would implement also, such as eliminating hung juries. A trial should result either in conviction or aquital, not a do-over.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 17, 2008 4:50:31 PM

I didn't see that show either and have no desire to do so. Go Nader!

I do think that the question as presented here contains many a false premise. For one, I don't believe that education has anything to do with crime, except make it more appealing. As Clarence Darrow noted, "I have never defended a murderer who was not superior to your average man." Furthermore, I don't accept the fact that all criminals have a desire to be "rehabilitated". Some do, some don't. In a democracy that is designed to provide (in theory) the "greatest good for the greatest number" there will always be a segment of that society that is not among the greatest number and will seek extra-legal means to remedy their situation. Rehabilitation for such individuals does not mean a change in themselves but requires the elimination of the law that criminalize their conduct. Pedophilia is a good example.

Unlike the minister and Obama, I don't know that the amount of people in prison is "too high" because I don't know that there is a rational way to arrive at an objective, socially ideal number of people to be in prison. I sympathize with the notion there are too many laws, and I absolutely agree that there is a "prison industrial complex". But even if we were to reduce the number of laws and eliminate the economic incentives to put people in prison we still might find ourselves with as many prisoners as before.

BTW, Soronel Haetir, that was one of the silliest/scariest ideas I have seen in a long time. It would be a wonderful system in a fascist county but has no place in a democracy.

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 17, 2008 5:20:04 PM


I see my proposal as the ultimate democratic check on the criminal process. When just one citizen has the opportunity to bring a convict back into civil society I would call that perhaps the ultimate vote.

A statist would be very unlikely to place so much trust in citizens.

(P.S. #5 also addresses something else I feel is done very poorly in the U.S., mistakes basically last forever. Used to be that someone could start over and make a fresh go at life, that's no longer possible.)

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 17, 2008 5:56:13 PM


Suppose that the minimum pool size is four persons for the most serve crimes
and eight for the next class and 16 & 32 for two lowest levels of severity. It appears to me that with that set of pool sizes most convicts would be executed.

No wonder that Daniel is scared.

Posted by: John Neff | Aug 17, 2008 6:23:14 PM

Even with pool sizes of 10, 100 and 1000 I would expect that nearly all in the first category and most in the second would be executed. My hoped for number in the third category would be 10-25% executed. Such numbers are features of the system, not bugs.

I do not, however, have any evidence that such a pool size would actually result in an execution rate in the stated range.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 17, 2008 6:50:01 PM


Sounds like a form of democratic eugenics, nothing more. (This isn't really all that different from what we currently have, of course, in which 12 people decide whether any given individual's life has worth to the society. It just isn't as constrained as what we have now, given current limitations on which crimes are subject to death.)

Instead of leaving it up to compassionate individuals to choose to make sacrifices for the society by opening their homes to rehabilitating criminals, why don't we instead take collective responsibility for the conditions in society we have created that cause criminal behavior in the first place and work to ameliorate them? I view your model as a defiant refusal to be held accountable for your own political choices.

Posted by: DK | Aug 17, 2008 9:26:35 PM

"4)When those appeals are exhausted the convict is executed, not for the crime of conviction, but for being considered unfit for living within society."

Good idea! Maybe you and Federalist can iron out the details. Keep us posted!!

Posted by: anon | Aug 17, 2008 9:56:56 PM

"Faith in human redemption can get people killed . . . ."

I agree. People that don't go to law school are spiritually dead. There is no redemption for that type.

Posted by: S.cotus | Aug 18, 2008 7:07:26 AM

It seems that it is easier to win elections by professing to get tough on crime than by funding an educatin system that prevents people from turning to crime. During my time in federal prison, I saw many good people who just made stupid mistakes, mistakes they likely would have avoided if an education had presented them with other opportunities.

Posted by: Jonathan Richards | Nov 15, 2008 5:46:17 AM

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