The cost of tough-on-crime horseshit

It’s steep.

When Harry Coates campaigned for the Oklahoma state Senate in 2002, he had one approach to crime: “Lock ’em up and throw away the key.”

Now, Coates is looking for that key. He and other tough-on-crime lawmakers across the country, faced with steep budget shortfalls, are searching anxiously for ways to let inmates out of prison faster and keep more offenders on the street.

Oklahoma’s preferred answer for crime has collided head-on with a budget deficit estimated at $600 million, and prison costs that have increased more than 30 percent in the last decade.

And this is common all across the country. As a result, prisoners are being released early, others are only being put on probation, and still others are receiving treatment for drug addiction. This is helping the problem somewhat. No, no. Not the money. I mean, yes, that is being helped, but the real problem – the one where non-violent offenders go to prison to lose years of their lives, where they lose any real chance at becoming better, where they go to learn how to be better criminals – that is being helped.

It’s just for all the wrong reasons.

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President Obama praises Michael Vick

And I love it.

NBC’s Peter King reports that Barack Obama called Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie earlier this week to congratulate him for giving Vick a second chance after his release from prison. According to King, the president said that released prisoners rarely receive a level playing field and that Vick’s story could begin to change that.

The reason I like this so much isn’t that I’m a big fan of Michael Vick as a player – though I am – and it isn’t that I’m a big fan of the Eagles – I’m definitely not; every team that has ever been anywhere near Pennsylvania, and especially those in Philly, can go to hell. It’s that people are irrationally harsh towards released convicts. We have this whole system set up where we say, “Okay, you did these wrong things, so we need to fix the situation”, and the way we fix things is to come up with sentences of certain periods. If anyone thought for a damn minute about what we’re doing, they would realize that by agreeing to the very idea of releasing people after certain periods of time, we’re saying, “Okay, we can call the situation fixed after X days/weeks/months/years.” We may not considere it entirely fixed (hence probation), but we are, as an obvious matter of fact, considering the bulk of the situation resolved. But emotion gets in the way.

From sports shows to articles to conversations, I have heard people say again and again that Vick ought to be banned from ever playing in the NFL again. All that does is ignore everything we’re saying as a society about the very idea of prison sentences that result in release. He has served his time. Even though prison should not be about punishment (because that’s plainly petty), the pro-revenge/punishment crowd ought to be satisfied by the fact that Vick has completed his sentence. More so, for reasonable people (who aren’t usually American), the fact that Vick’s time in prison has made it virtually certain he will never again abuse animals ought to be satisfying. In this case, we can say he went to a correction facility – and we’ll be honest when we say it.

So I am very happy to read the President’s words on Vick. If we’re just out to make the lives of people terrible because they did a terrible thing, we’re just hypocrites. And more importantly, we aren’t improving anything. I would think with such a large Christian population that we might do a little more turning of the cheek. (Unless people are just picking and choosing their morality from their religion…) I cannot say I am overly hopeful that Obama’s praise of Vick is going to radically change things for the better, but it is a step in the right direction.

The irrationally harsh laws of America

One thing I can’t help but notice whenever MSNBC’s Lockup comes on is that the U.S. has a lot of morally horrific laws. Plenty of inmates are absolutely nuts and need to be in prison for a long time, but there are also so many who don’t deserve the sentences they get. The U.S. is doing itself a disservice by locking up people for insanely long times, especially when the crimes are non-violent or even victimless. Of course, if our citizens were as white as our institutions, we probably wouldn’t be trying to show the world we can be less forgiving than China.

And the reprehensible laws don’t end there. We have people who get in trouble because some overzealous, moron prosecutors internalize rules. Take the case from last year where teens who were of the age of consent sent nude pictures of themselves to each other over their phones. They got community service for distributing child pornography. That helps no one. No one.

And of course then there’s that whole “Murder is wrong…unless governments do it!” law. I mean, the death penalty. It’s the height of hypocrisy, devalues human life, and is virtually only supported by nations with backwards laws – and I most certainly include the U.S. in that grouping.

With all these irrational laws and punishments, I find it so refreshing when I hear about organizations that fight to help convicts. The most visible groups are the ones that try to stop state-sanctioned murder, but there are also ones like Stanford’s Three Strikes Project that fight against those awful three strike laws present in 26 states.

Students at Stanford Law School’s novel Three Strikes Project, which has successfully overturned 14 life prison terms handed down for non-violent crimes under California’s unforgiving sentencing law, are joined by an unusual coalition in their latest bid. The county judge and prosecutor who sent Shane Taylor behind bars for 25-years-to-life in 1996 now want to help set him free.

His public defender at trial is also supporting Taylor’s plea for a reduced sentence by conceding he failed to mount an adequate defense.

Taylor’s offenses: two burglary convictions when he was 19, and a third conviction for possessing about $10 worth of methamphetamine.

Any reasonable person can see that it makes no sense to send a 19 year old to prison until he’s 44 because he did three stupid things. And this is the typical of these sort of laws. We routinely send young people to prison, removing virtually all discretion from the hands of judges, and to what end? We aren’t educating them. We aren’t removing them from negative environments. All we’re doing is placing them with criminals who are going to teach them how to make a living being criminals.

But maybe Taylor’s crimes do deserve a lot of prison time, regardless of the law, right?

The judge, Howard Broadman, became haunted by memories of the case, believing he had rendered a bad decision in invoking the harsh law. He regretted that in calculating the prison sentence he hadn’t ignored one or both of Taylor’s previous felony convictions: Attempted burglary and burglary that netted a homeless and methamphetamine-addicted Taylor a pizza paid for with a forged check.

And some of the other people in prison under this horrible law?

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation says 8,570 third strikers were in prison as of December 2009. Slightly less than half were sentenced for “crimes against property,” drugs and other offenses, including 55 drunken driving convictions.

No one wants to go easy on drunk drivers, but 25 years? Come on.

There’s no rationality behind these sort of laws. They are motivated by nothing more than emotional and a desire for revenge. And they need to go.