Friday, July 31, 2009

Punishment And Crime

by Mort Malkin

Punishment And Crime

USA! USA! We have a reputation to uphold. Americans need to be #1 in all things, even the number of prison inmates we hold. If China ever gets close — repressive, Communist China — we can always add the hundreds of detainees at Guantanamo and Bagram. Currently, we can boast 2,300,000 prisoners in the US. We also have a reserve pool of 5 million on probation or parole. Just let them make one wrong move.

Though our prisons are officially designated as corrections institutions, they are nothing of the sort. To the contrary, a good case can be made that the prisons are schools for crime. At a 67.5% average recidivism rate (within three years), there is precious little correction going on. Moreover, assaults within prison walls are commonplace — assaults on prisoners by colleagues and by guards.

The yearly increase in the number of inmates has proceeded in lock-step with the number of elected officials (public servants) who feel a political imperative to be “tough on crime.” Many small communties have come to depend upon the nearby prison as a major employer of their area. Nationally, a prison-industrial complex has arisen with specialists in prison design, construction, and supply. An even more questionable enterprise has been privately run prisons. Do not be aghast, dear readers, there are over a hundred privately run lock-ups, mostly in the southern and a few western states. The two major players, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), care for about 10,000 inmates. Tennessee and Texas, early adherents of free enterprise in criminal justice, were our national leaders. Wall Street aided and abetted (conspired) in this privated enterprise. Were CCA and GEO the inspiration for Blackwater?

Prison, however, is a last stage of the criminal justice system. More basic steps (basic black?) are: the police, lawyers, and the courts. Even more fundamental are the Law and the Constitution. In the US, the police see their role as protecting the public. They offer proof of their effectiveness by citing number of arrests. Lawyers say their primary duty is to their clients, within bounds of the law. District attorneys (all lawyers), representing the people, often measure their success in numbers of convictions. DAs and the police, with similar obligations, work together for public order. The police, knowing that convictions can rest comfortably on eye witness testimony, will often ask victims to identify perpetrators in a lineup or rogues gallery of photos. If such a grouping includes an innocent suspect but not the actual criminal, the witness will assume one of the shown individuals should be fingered. “That’s the one!” The Innocence Project has tracked 133 death row inmates who were belatedly declared innocent. DNA evidence, recanted witness testimony, or other new proof was sufficiently compelling in these cases.

Yet, the US (as if to justify its high jailure rate) does have a reputable murder rate — far above Great Britain and Western Europe and comparable to Eastern Europe. Ah, Belarus is not so violent after all. Where the US really excels is in murder by firearms. We’re ahead of all other developed nations combined.

It looks like we need criminal justice reform, but not just a touch here and there. A more fundamental model can be seen in Germany, a nation that is well along on the road to preventing crime and minimizing the need for jails.

In Munich, Germany (Munchen), population 1.2 million, there were three murders in year 2000. Munich, it seems, limits its murders to TV programs — over 100 that same year on the tube. How do they keep their reality murder rate so low? The first answer is community. Even with over a million people, the Munchens all feel a sense of social responsibility. No one holds a “Don’t get involved” attitude. Second, all guns must be registered and kept in locked cabinets. Germany won’t register AK-47s or surface to air missiles. The NRA never held much sway in Germany — even the Black Forest is more famous for its chocolate cake the any metaphorical connotations.

If the first two legs of the tripod are community and gun regulations, the third is the Law and the duty of lawyers. That role of lawyers goes double for district attorneys. Here in the US, district attorneys feel their first responsibility is to their clients, the people. German DAs have a primary loyalty to the Truth. Moreover, government attorneys are civil servants, never political appointees. Wouldn’t you know it — Old Europe obsessed with the truth.

The Gadfly Revelry & Research troupe (GRR), in a whirlwind of simplicity, has proposed a solution for criminal justice reform. GRR, in the interest of full disclosure, admits that they have purloined the solution from President Obama (who once promised us government accountability). President O was petitioned to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the individuals of the Bush-Cheney (BC) administration whose crimes have come to light. [Not to mention the dark secrets of Cheney’s OVP.] O’s response was that we should look forward, not back. What a way to empty our jails and clear the calendars of our criminal courts. All in one swell foop.

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