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June 12, 2011

Lots to good reasoning on crime and punishment at Reason

Reason cover A few helpful readers have pointed me to a few different notable new pieces in the July issue of Reason magazine.   That issue is a special one with the over title  "Criminal Injustice: Inside America's National Disgrace."  Reasoneditor-in-chief Matt Welch provides an effective introduction to this issue, titled "The Ends Didn’t Justify the Means: Our complicity in the devastating war on crime," which starts this way:

At the first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson implored Republican voters to conduct a “cost-benefit analysis” of the criminal justice system.  “Half of what we spend on law enforcement, the courts, and the prisons is drug related, and to what end?” Johnson asked a South Carolina audience in May.  “We’re arresting 1.8 million a year in this country; we now have 2.3 million people behind bars in this country.  We have the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.  I would ask people to look at this issue; see if they don’t come to the same conclusion that I did, and that is that 90 percent of the drug problem is prohibition-related.”

The ends of justice, Johnson argues, have not justified the means of prosecution.  This issue of reason is a detailed brief in support of that thesis.  A system designed to protect the innocent has instead become a menagerie to imprison them.  A legal code designed to proscribe specific behavior has instead become a vast, vague, and unpredictable invitation to selective enforcement.  Public servants who swear on the Constitution to uphold the highest principles of justice go out of their way to stop prisoners from using DNA evidence to show they were wrongly convicted.  Even before you start debating the means of the four-decade crackdown on crime and drugs, it’s important to acknowledge that the ends are riddled with serious problems.

 And here are the three major article that follow this introduction in the magazine:

The "social costs" article, authored  by Harvard sociology Professor Bruce Western, includes these important insight:

Do prisons make us safer?  By taking would-be offenders off the streets, prisons clearly have reduced crime in the short run.  In the long run, though, imprisonment erodes the bonds of work, family, and community that help preserve public safety.

Three effects are fundamental.  First, former prisoners do worse economically than if they had never been incarcerated.  We can see some evidence in a study I conducted in 2004 with the Princeton sociologist Devah Pager. We ran an audit experiment that sent trained testers to apply for more than 1,000 entry-level jobs throughout New York City.  The fake job applicants were dressed similarly, gave similar answers, and provided résumés with identical education and work experience.  At each job interview, however, one randomly chosen tester would tick the application box indicating a criminal record and submit a résumé that mentioned a prison and provided a parole officer as a reference.

White testers who were assigned a criminal record received call-backs or job offers from employers only half as often as testers with clean records. For African Americans, a criminal record reduced employment opportunities by two-thirds. Labor force data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth paint a similar picture of incarceration’s negative effects: Wages fall by about 15 percent after prison, yearly earnings are reduced by about 40 percent, and the pay of former prisoners (unlike compensation for the rest of the labor force) remains stagnant as they get older.

The second important effect of imprisonment falls not on ex-inmates but on their families.  About half of all prison and jail inmates are parents with children under 18.  By 2008 about 2.6 million children had a parent in prison or jail.  By age 17, one in four African-American youth has a father who has been sent to prison.

Because of their poor job prospects, formerly incarcerated fathers are less able to contribute financially to their families.  Because incarceration strains marital relations, those fathers are also less involved as parents.  Compared to otherwise similar kids whose parents haven’t been behind bars, the children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be depressed, behave aggressively, and drop out of high school.  These problems appear to be more common for boys than girls. Incarceration, it seems, is weakening the bonds between fathers and sons.

The third important effect of incarceration is cultural, shaping how the institutions of law and order are viewed in high-crime/high-incarceration neighborhoods.  The prison population is drawn overwhelmingly from low-income inner-city areas whose residents come to associate police and the courts with the surrounding social problems of violence and poverty.  Police are viewed as unhelpful, and often unaccountable, contributing to what the Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson calls “legal cynicism” in troubled, crime-ridden neighborhoods.

June 12, 2011 at 01:48 PM | Permalink


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"By taking would be offenders off the street, prisons have clearly reduced crime in the short run."

After this laudable acknowledgement, the article reverts back to the tired lament that "imprisonment erodes the bonds of work, family and community....."

With non-marital birthrates exceeding 70% for blacks,60% for Hispanics, and 40% for whites, offenders are rarely part of any stable family unit. The social pathology that follows provides neither the discipline nor the ability to delay gratification needed for committment to a 9-5 job rather than a leisurely and more lucrative criminal lifestyle.

The costs of imprisonment have been wildly exaggerated while its benefits undersold.

Posted by: mjs | Jun 13, 2011 12:08:03 PM


That imprisonment not only erodes the bonds of work, family and community, but effectively damages people before reentry is not a "lament" but a cold reality that communities are facing around the country to a much greater extent than ever before.Studies after studies have shown this. And professionals working on the ground in these communities have spoken out about the effects of incarceration that they are seeing, and dealing with at the community level.

Poverty is the strongest commonality of most people in our jails and prisons, not your "non-marital birthrate."

Imprisonment undersold? I seriously doubt that, given that the U.S. now imprisons more people than any other developed country in the world. Indeed, it appears - again, based on evidenced-based research - that the American people have been grossly oversold incarceration at an enormous cost to local schools, hospitals and community clinics, fire departments and community policing. Americans got sold a bill of goods with incarceration, and far too many communities continue to overpay for it, as I said, at great societal cost.

Wake up, mjs.

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 13, 2011 1:04:23 PM


Many conclusions but precious few facts.

The main driver of poverty is family breakdown. In 2004, single-parent households nationally were six times as likely to be poor as married families. Multigenerational poverty exists because children are exposed to a toxic peer culture with no countervailing control by responsible parents.

I saw this first-hand in my career. I suggest you do likewise and not rely on preordained studies by the left for your information.

Posted by: mjs | Jun 13, 2011 4:25:59 PM

'mjs', can you cit additional studies that give the breakdown percentage of families that included incarcerated vs. non-incarcerated individuals within single-parent households.

Posted by: james | Jun 13, 2011 4:58:48 PM

Professor James Q Wilson had this figure in a March 2009 piece--70% of black males in prison did not grow up with a resident father.

This is remakably close to the current percentage of non-marital births for this group.

Posted by: mjs | Jun 13, 2011 7:49:37 PM


"U.S. Census data indicate that, from 1970 to 1992, the percentage of children under eighteen years old living only with their mother increased from 7.8 percent to 18 percent among whites and from 29 percent to 58 percent among blacks. Meanwhile, victimization reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that, in 1973, one in three Americans reported experiencing some form of property crime or violence during the preceding six months and, by 1992, the figure had dropped to one in four. Likewise, FBI uniform crime reports show that the murder rate dropped from approximately 10 per 100,000 persons in 1973 to 8.2 per 100,000 persons in 1995. In other words, the percentage of single-female-headed households among blacks and whites has increased at the same time property and violent crime rates--including the murder rate--have decreased. Logically speaking, if the black single-female-headed household is a major cause of America's high crime rates, these rates would have increased, not decreased." -Humanist Magazine

The damaging effects of incarceration are also very well documented.

In terms of your comment "I saw this first-hand in my career. I suggest you do likewise and not rely on preordained studies by the left for your information."

Please do not presume erroneously. I do see what I describe in my career, and I rely on well-documented, evidence-based research for my assertions.

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 13, 2011 10:35:18 PM


I would also add that the rate of single-parent households has absolutely soared since the data cited above.

And the Justice Policy Institute had this to say in their 2010 report on Poverty and incarceration:

"Poverty does not create crime, nor is limited wealth and income necessarily a predictor of involvement in the justice system; however, people with the fewest financial resources are more likely to end up in prison or jail. And the effects of an economic crisis like the one we are now experiencing are magnified for people with less income and wealth."

Finally, I would just add as well, that if your main concern is family instability and family breakdown, our current system of incarceration is devastating in that regard, and simply implodes families, often irreparably. To quote the Justice Policy Institute again:

"The use of incarceration and the justice system as a response to social problems is destructive, ripping families apart and having devastating impacts on communities of color and low-income communities. We must invest in policies and programs that prevent people from coming into contact with the justice system in the first place. A future where people feel safe and have the opportunities and resources to flourish must first be imagined in order to be achieved. The best public safety strategy will build strong communities of healthy, engaged children, and employed adults who have access to quality healthcare, education, housing, and supportive services that are affordable, and where people are treated fairly and respectfully by the justice system."

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 13, 2011 11:06:37 PM

anonymous: We could trade supporting statistics ad infinitum. Suffice it to say that incarceration cannot implode a family that was never a stable family unit in the first instance. The current non-marital birthrate proves that your idyllic version of the "American family" no longer exists in the inner city and in large parts of the country.

Posted by: mjs | Jun 14, 2011 9:22:32 AM


You mischaracterize my post: I don't have any idyllic version of the American family, as you say. Far from it. You demanded stats, so I provided them.

My point, which I made very clear, is that imprisonment is destructive to individuals and families and comes at an extreme social cost. (And that is one of the points of the original post). If you choose not to believe that, that's your choice, but your choice in that regard flies in the face of evidence (and reality).

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 14, 2011 11:43:58 AM


Offenders who reside in stable family units prior to incarceration are the rare exception and not the rule. How can prison destroy a relationship that never existed in the first place?

Posted by: mjs | Jun 14, 2011 1:38:35 PM


Traumatization in institutions can definitely make individuals far worse, and prevent successful reentry, in ways that affects families and communities in greater and more serious ways than a pre-incarceration state.

Furthermore, studies have shown that incarceration affects family members on the outside in very harmful ways, sometimes more than the prisoner herself/himself.

I'd refer you to the University of Michigan School of Public Health studies done on this as well as work done by Dr. Craig Haney in studying prisoners and their families.

Posted by: anonymous | Jun 14, 2011 1:57:55 PM

mjs says " How can prison destroy a relationship that never existed in the first place?"

1. Lack of regular communication. Federal prisons limit phone call to 15 min at a time with only 300 min. per month. In addition, family can not call the inmate, not even for emergencies.

2. Financial hardships imposed on families who may travel long distances (400 - 500 miles) for a couple of days of visiting. Gas, hotels, meals on the road, wear and tear on cars, all add to the stress of what is more than likely a single income family. In addition, federal prisons limit visits to inmates using a point system. Realistically, between points accumulated and financial limitations, visitors most likely would not be able to visit more than 3-4 days per month.

3. Absence does not really make the heart grow fonder contrary to all those love songs you may have heard. Absence is stressful to children who have to explain why their father is missing and to spouses who have to go on living.

Those of us who do survive with their relationship intact will never ever forget the whole experience.

Posted by: anon2 | Jun 14, 2011 3:13:32 PM


certainly agree with that last sentence, to talk the talk you must walk the walk and nothing brings that home more dearly than first hand personal life experiences.

Posted by: james | Jun 14, 2011 8:58:36 PM

“By and large, I clearly had not found a way to help classes full of MBAs see that there is more to life than money, power, fame and self-interest.”

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