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The New York Times takes a second bite at the prisoners-as-census-boosters meme today, this time in a foolish editorial by Brent Staples. Staples argues, as did the Times' editorial board five weeks ago, that the main motivation for mandatory prison sentencing springs from a desire to skew census counts, Congressional representation, and federal handouts:
The mandatory sentencing fad that swept the United States beginning in the 1970's has had dramatic consequences - most of them bad. The prison population was driven up tenfold, creating a large and growing felon class - now 13 million strong - that remains locked out of the mainstream and prone to recidivism. Trailing behind the legions of felons are children who grow up visiting their parents behind bars and thinking prison life is perfectly normal. Meanwhile, the cost of building and running prisons has pushed many states near bankruptcy - and forced them to choose between building jails and schools.
To start with, Staples gets his chronology backwards. Voters insisted on mandatory sentencing because of recidivism. Recidivism necessarily gets curtailed when felons remain in prison, a very simple concept seemingly beyond Staples' grasp. Our prison systems used to parole violent offenders with obscenely short incarceration time to pay homage to the concept of rehabilitation, only to offer citizens up as sacrifices to that ideal. Mandatory sentencing for violent crimes or serial felons reflects society's overdue judgment that prison serves three purposes: punishment, rehabilitation -- when possible -- and most importantly, keeping civil society safe from human predators.
Seldom has a public policy done so much damage so quickly. But changes in the draconian sentencing laws have come very slowly. That is partly because the public thinks keeping a large chunk of the population behind bars is responsible for the reduced crime rates of recent years. Studies cast doubt on that theory, since they show drops in crime almost everywhere - even in states that did not embrace mandatory minimum sentences or mass imprisonment.
So far, of course, the only "damage" that Staples provides are assertions that 13 million people are behind bars needlessly and the lament that their children see prison time as "normal". That may be lamentable indeed -- but not as lamentable as murder, rape, theft, and so on. The mandatory sentencing for serial felons keeps them from committing more crime and creating more victims. In fact, I find it revealing that Staples doesn't bother to decry the criminal victimhood that a decade or so ago that everyone accepted as inevitable. Why is that less lamentable?
But that's not really Staples' big gripe anyway. He mostly opposes counting incarcerated felons as belonging to the districts where the prisons exist rather than their home turf because it means that the cities don't get credit for the population:
Nearly all of the prisoners ended up in upstate New York, where failing farms and hollowed-out cities offered a lot of room for building. Politicians in these sparsely populated districts caught on quickly and began to lobby to have the new prisons located in their communities. As a result, nearly 30 percent of the people who were counted as moving into upstate New York during the 1990's were prison inmates. ...
The New York Republican Party uses its majority in the State Senate to maintain political power through fat years and lean. The Senate Republicans, in turn, rely on their large upstate delegation to keep that majority. Whether those legislators have consciously made the connection or not, it's hard to escape the fact that bulging prisons are good for their districts. The advantages extend beyond jobs and political gerrymandering. By counting unemployed inmates as residents, the prison counties lower their per capita incomes - and increase the portion they get of federal funds for the poor. This results in a transfer of federal cash from places that can't afford to lose it to places that don't deserve it.
Ah, here we come to the crux of the matter. Republicans hold their majority in New York state politics due to skewed census results, and the Big Apple doesn't get the pork Staples thinks it deserves. Had Democrats been more popular in outstate New York, one suspects that neither editorial would ever have appeared in the Gray Lady.
Why does the census credit residence to the district with the prison? The obvious answer: the prisoners reside there. Perhaps the better reason is that the communities housing these prisoners take all the security risks incumbent on this duty -- a duty that the NIMBY-minded residents in the Big Apple have shirked. The city would rather use its valuable real estate for commercial purposes and farm out incarcerating their own felons. I have no problem with that, but one cannot expect the suburbs and exurbs to take on the risk and receive none of the credit.
Further, Staples uses misleading or flat-out erroneous data to support his claims. He states that we have a "felon class" of 13 million people. That would be news to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which puts the entire American prison population at all levels for all crimes at just over 2 million at the end of 2003. Moreover, the rate of growth slowed in 2003 to 2.6%, down from the 3.5% rate over the past decade. Violent offenders, by the way, accounted for 63% of the increased incarceration, while drug-related crime -- which Staples claims is the main cause -- only accounted for 15%.
Even more absurd is the Times' use of New York as an example. In 2003, New York's prison population decreased by 2.8%, one of 11 states whose incarceration declined. Even without that information, New York's prison population (77,000 in 2000) won't even amount to a single Congressional or assembly representative even if they were all put into one facility. It's a non-issue that the Times insists on beating into the ground, just like their jeremiad against the Masters tournament.
All of this data is readily available, by the way, to anyone with access to Google. The lack of responsible research and the frankly misleading data shows that the Times does not have any interest in responsible journalism or punditry, but instead desires to trick its readers into the knee-jerk reactions it supposedly decries.
The Op-Ed columnists for the first time operate under a formal corrections policy, and if you haven't been seeing tons of corrections on the page, it may be for the best of reasons: judging by the shrinking volume of complaints I receive from readers, columnists' errors have become much less frequent.
Yes, I'll be sending him an e-mail regarding Mr. Staples.Sphere It View blog reactions
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