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October 30, 2009

"Can Our Shameful Prisons Be Reformed?"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary by Professor David Cole in the newest issue of the New York Review of Books.  The review discusses three new works on American penal policies: Race, Incarceration, and American Values by Glenn Loury; Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice by Paul Butler; and Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities: Reentry, Race, and Politics by Anthony Thompson.  Here is a snippet from the piece:

Three recent books by scholars who happen to be black men eloquently attest to these broader effects of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system.  For Loury, "mass incarceration has now become a principal vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchy in our society."  For George Washington University law professor Paul Butler, author of Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, "the two million Americans in prison represent the most urgent challenge to democratic values since the civil rights era."  And for New York University law professor Anthony Thompson, author of Releasing Prisoners, Redeeming Communities: Reentry, Race, and Politics, it is critical that we examine "the pervasive interplay of race, power, and politics that infuse and confuse our attitudes about crime."...

as citizens we all have a stake in the fairness and legitimacy of our criminal justice system for both moral and pragmatic reasons.  The character of our nation is determined in significant part by how we treat the criminally accused. It is no accident that the Bill of Rights concentrates primarily on protecting the rights of those suspected of crime.  These amendments were deemed necessary precisely because political majorities are likely to seek shortcuts on fairness when crime is alleged, even though fairness is fundamental to the integrity of the criminal justice system.

As a pragmatic matter, the legitimacy of the criminal justice system is essential because it encourages law-abiding behavior. If people believe in the basic legitimacy of a leader or regime or procedure, they are far more likely to abide by the rules.  If, on the other hand, a system is seen as corrupt, unfair, or unjust, those subjected to it will be less inclined to respect it.  A legal system that relegates the majority of our most disadvantaged populations to incarceration, and does next to nothing to help them avoid prison or to reintegrate into society upon release, invites disrespect — and crime. 

October 30, 2009 at 09:24 AM | Permalink


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"A legal system that relegates the majority of our most disadvantaged populations to incarceration, and does next to nothing to help them avoid prison or to reintegrate into society upon release, invites disrespect — and crime."

The resumes of these black law professors totally rebuts their point, that black crime is the fault or responsibility of the government or of others. Black criminality is the responsibility of the black criminal. High academic achievement of the black professor is the responsibility of the intelligent, hard working black student.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 30, 2009 10:40:57 AM

Okay, prison avoidance, sounds great, really. When you have a culture where even moderate academic success is seen as something negative prison avoidance looks like a you can lead a horse to water problem.

I agree with SC on the multiplying effect of bastardy, but don't see any way out that would be acceptable. I just don't see parenting licenses being welcomed. And the inverse of "no man in the house" would be incredibly difficult to police.

Even things like taking all children away from parents who have children that get into a certain amount of trouble isn't really viable. By the time you find out someone is raising a nest of little hoodlums it is too late.

I believe parents are the key, but I really don't see how we are going to fix generations of absolute miserable examples.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 30, 2009 11:35:06 AM

Here is something simple and doable. Stop the money bounty on getting rid of the productive male to foster single motherhood with money. Allow open criticism of irresponsible, single motherhood in order to get the welfare check. Try doing that as a social worker. You have your job for only the next 60 seconds, and then, you are gone. Now, the lawyer is coming after the white family with results. He put a bounty on the breakup of the white family. There is a 20% child support rate. As the male goes from making $10,000 a year to $1 million a year, the wife gets $200,000 a year for nothing, for getting rid of the father. If the father does not pay, the federal government will reach out and find him, take the money wherever he might decide to hide. Not paying child support has become a federal crime. The overwhelming majority of breakups are of low intensity, and should be reconciled for the sake of the children. The lawyer churns the conflict, and the parasitic feminist is paid a high bounty to break up the family. Here is the best. The male has to pay the legal fees of the lawyer of the feminist parasite. The American Rule is gone, it is so important to the lawyer to break up the white family.

White family formation is falling off. The racial disparity in crime will soon disappear as whites grow up in single mother homes. One of the spawns of single mother families is in the White House.

Here is another simple solution. Arrest the entire lawyer hierarchy, about 15,000 people. Give them each an hour's fair trial. Then, shoot them in the head in the basement of the court. To deter these internal traitors from their insurrection against the Constitution.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Oct 30, 2009 2:09:00 PM

I thought the David Cole article was excellent and I intend to read the books he reviewed. The association between the degree of educational attainment and the probability of incarceration has been known for a very long time. In fact it is one of the items listed in the Iowa prison roster.

I was interested in the discussion about the persistence of the racial disparity because I had previously reviewed the historical data and was able to show that there was a large racial disparity in Iowa prisons in 1950 and has not changed much since then. According to the review this is also true in other states.

There is relatively little difference in the incarceration probabilities for educated Blacks, Hispanics and Whites but the school drop outs of all races and ethnicities seem to have wandered into a swamp or tar pit with the Blacks worse off than the others.

One of our probation officers talks about kids competing for adult attention and one way to get a lot of adult attention is to be called before juvenile court. That type of behavior also causes problems in school. The failure of our educational system has contributed to the growth of the prison population but it is not clear that it contributed to the racial disparity because the educational system was never very good for Blacks.

Posted by: John Neff | Oct 31, 2009 8:55:33 AM

John Neff,

And how much of that education failure can be laid at the feet of parents? There are other groups who have experienced just as much poverty, sometimes even more in the way of racially motivated harassment (think of the Japanese experience in WW2) who have far different priorities with regard to education. And those groups now thrive.

I just don't see schools ever succeeding if parents aren't behind the effort.

A different sort of example, consisting mostly of lower middle class rural whites. The superintendent of a district I had attended a couple years before stated at an open school board meeting "There are no college bound students in this district," while arguing against retaining the few AP courses offered. It might not have been true when he said it, but it became true soon after. Over 2/3 of the student body moved over the following months. This in a district with total enrollment of about 250 K-12 and where the nearest decent district was about an hour and a half away. This was over a decade ago, I'm not sure if the district has recovered even now.

The point of this example is to illustrate the role parents have in the education their children receive. I look at news items out of Chicago for example, complaining about the violence and honestly wonder what keeps parents rooted in such situations. Schools can fail in a myriad ways but so long as parents see school as little more than free day care they aren't going to be fixed.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 31, 2009 9:35:14 AM

Improving your child's school by moving is an option for middle and upper income families but it is not an option for low income families. The people who live in low income neighborhoods have very little long term political influence (short term influence is another story) and it takes a long time to rebuild a school (unfortunately it take a very short time to wreck one).

My former daughter-in-law was a special education teacher and when there were parent-teacher-conferences the parents were no-shows. She tried her best to keep her students in school but with no parental involvement her success rate was low.

At one point in my school district they provided kids with part time jobs if they stayed in school and it was a good investment when you consider future criminal justice costs. The conservatives had a fit and were able to kill the program.

Posted by: John Neff | Oct 31, 2009 11:54:03 AM

John Neff,

I'm sorry but I call bullshit on not being able to move. You just need the will to do it. I have experience living in poverty to the point of not having electricity, running water or a phone. It's a matter of deciding what things are important. If education is important to you a way can be found regardless of income.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Oct 31, 2009 11:48:47 PM

You have to move to a community with good schools, affordable housing and low unemployment. Most of the affordable housing is taken and people are on the waiting lists for years.

Posted by: John Neff | Nov 1, 2009 10:06:17 AM

We just don't value education in this country and that is a root cause of many of our crime, economy, and political problems. Fix our education deficiencies in this Country and many of our current problems would nearly disappear within a few years.
The politicians and lobbyists would rather have ever-increasing taxes go toward arresting and incarcerating people than good education for every child. Corrections has become a powerful pork industry and those that feed from its trough don't want to give it up.

Posted by: crustytheclown | Nov 1, 2009 6:41:06 PM

The discussion here illustrates the virtue of school vouchers, which enable parents, and particularly less affluent parents, to escape failing public schools and get their kids into something better.

If we can afford millions (or was it billions, I forget) for "Cash for Clunkers," we can afford vouchers. Human beings are more important than cars.

The reason vouchers are not more widespread is not difficult to discern: politics. In particular, the public school teachers unions, which have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo no matter how bad the product, are a powerful constituency, particularly with the powers that be in most urban areas. So the teachers live high on the taxpayers' hog, even as their students fall farther and farther behind in the one area of their lives that ought to be providing them with a basis for hope.

Monopolies -- like the virtual public school monopoly -- seldom produce a good product at a good price. Lack of competition has consequences. Vouchers in effect create competition by allowing parents to choose good schools (public or private) and flee the bad ones.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 2, 2009 7:34:42 AM

Bill, the concept behind vouchers originated in the South to avoid the mandate of Brown v. Board of Education by funding the segregated "private acadamies" using tax dollars. They are in actuality a trojan horse for the Christian right whose ultimate goal is to destroy the public school system. The political reality is that vouchers are basically useless - unless there is an outside group willing to subsidize the schools. The fact is that most private and good public schools spend much more per child than the poor schools do - the voucher will not be sufficient to pay a non-subsidized tuition. Not to mention that many poor children have serious transportation issues - unless you have access to transportation, you can't go to anything but the closest schools. Choice is useless if you have no realistic opportunity to exercise it.

Bill, I'm guessing that you never have lived in the rural South. If you did, you'd realize just how scary vouchers really are. Maybe they aren't too dangerous in the northeast where there are legimate private schools that have the goal of educating children. I'm from the rural south and the public schools aren't very good but when the alternative to teh public schools is is Jim Bob's Bible Academy teaching that the earth is 6000 years old and that the dinosaurs went extinct when there wasn't room in Noah's Ark - I would hope that you would not want your tax dollars to be financing that.

And on a relatde note, once again everyone focuses on urban poverty and ignores rural poverty.

Posted by: virginia | Nov 2, 2009 3:12:38 PM

virginia --

I lived in Chapel Hill, NC, for four years. I don't know if that meets your definition of "rural."

The one thing I know for sure is that the public school systems in one city after the next are failures and have been for years. I live now in a suburb of Washington, DC, whose public schools are notorious for being, not merely failures, but dangerous to boot.

The reason nothing gets done is that the teachers unions won't allow it. They have a political stranglehold on the City Council. The status quo -- fat salaries, no results or accountability required -- is fine with them.

The situation is intolerable for anyone who cares about actually "breaking the cycle" of dismal education for minority students, and the strongest voices in this community for school vouchers are minority parents. I doubt these folks know or care whether the "origin" of vouchers was the aftermath of Brown v. Board 50 years ago. What they want, and in my opinion deserve, is more of a chance for their kids than the status quo is delivering.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 2, 2009 10:19:29 PM

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