Saturday, August 6, 2011

Crime and Punishment

ID: We’ve talked about revenge before, at great length. So I imagine you want nothing more than to fly to Norway and punch Anders Behring Breivik. Repeatedly.

B: I want to beat him to death, resuscitate him, and do it again, for every single child he murdered.

ID: Ladies and gentlemen, your Batman, star of your children’s video games, lunch boxes and SpaghettiOs.

B: You didn’t let me finish. I think it’s completely natural for that to be your first reaction. Children, in a very real sense, are our future. Genetically, we’re predisposed to protecting them, whatever the costs. And our instincts even push us to protect one another- an instinct society reinforces. So an eye for an eye, it makes sense, as a gut reaction.

ID: And that’s why I wanted to talk about this specific case. Because the Norwegian justice system leans entirely in the other direction. Under current law, Breivik could only be sentenced to 21 years in prison. That’s mostly because sentences don’t compound.

B: Though there is a possibility he could be tried against a “crimes against humanity” statute passed in 2008 which would put him away for thirty.

ID: But thirty years… that doesn’t seem like enough. I mean, [Timothy] McVeigh, even if he hadn’t been put to death, would have spent several lifetimes in jail. It’s probably long enough to keep him from committing more terrorism when he gets out- I mean, he’ll be 62, not many 62 year old terrorists.

B: Except in leadership. But outside of the Middle East, most terrorist groups remain pretty small, and there are fewer old men involved.

And I think you’re right. 21 years, 30 years, 100 years- I don’t think there’s a number high enough that it would feel all right. I don’t think we could put him to death and get the kind of closure we want, either; killing one man who killed 69, that’s not a trade I can happily make. In some respects, particularly given that he’s a violent and disturbed individual, I’d say perhaps the criminal justice system isn’t the answer for him, anyway. Keeping him away from the public, where he can be treated, might make more sense- terrorism’s a special case, I think. But I think the question needs to not be what will make us feel better- that justice has been done- and what’s going to stop those kinds of things from happening- that’s why terrorism is maybe a separate issue.

Generally speaking, I think Norway’s criminal justice system has a lot to teach us. The country has 10% of our per capita prison population, and their recidivism rate is a third of ours. Counter-intuitive as it might seem, their whole open society could be one answer.

But I think it’s dangerous to oversimplify. Overall, I think the Norwegians know what they’re doing. But their solution is also uniquely Norwegian; I don’t know if you could lift that system out of Norway, drop it in another country, and achieve the same or even similar results. But I do think it’s worth looking at.

Just like it’s worth looking at the Japanese system; their recidivism rate is similarly low, and their per capita prison population is even lower than Norway’s.

DI: And Japan has that 99% conviction rate?

B: That’s actually a little misleading- though true. A study found that Japanese conviction rates are high because of understaffed and overworked prosecutor offices. Because of that, prosecutors only pursue their strongest cases- the ones where they’re most likely to achieve a conviction. Another facet was that until 2009, trials were conducted in front of before a judicial panels, not a jury, but the important point is the statistic in isolation is meaningless. It doesn’t mean more criminals are brought to justice in Japan- just that a higher percentage of those charged are found guilty.

DI: So just because we know their batting average doesn’t tell us whether or not they’re going to hit us any home runs or bat in any runs?

B: Basically. And while we’re on Japan, I’d like to mention something in parallel. Japanese culture has a history of accepting what I think we could safely call more extreme forms of pornography than western countries; fictional portrayals of rape, incest, pedophilia. At first I was pretty disgusted, but if you look at the statistics, the incidence of actual sex crimes in Japan is tiny by comparison.

And for several years now there’s been correlation between the availability of high speed internet and a decline in sexual assault in the US.

DI: But correlation is not causation.

B: Of course it isn’t. But wouldn’t the burden of proving the contrary then fall on those who argue for a closed society.

DI: But what about the children? Won’t somebody think of the children.

B: I think people have been lamenting the downfall of society since the first society. People predicted comics would ruin our children, then rock and roll, and now video games, or pornography.

And on the subject of violence- whatever the media- I’ve seen far more compelling research concluding that people with a predilection for violence gravitate towards violent media. It’s true, video games can lead to heightened emotional response and aggression, but that’s because they tap into primitive parts of the human mind, the fight or flight aspects. And this effect has only proven to last between 15 and 30 minutes. You’d see the exact same thing coming from athletes in competitive sports.

Mostly what I’m advocating is honest study and debate. There are countries that do better than we do at controlling criminals. We should be asking why, because we have the world’s largest prison population, and it costs us about $70 billion dollars a year to operate our prisons. There are 2.5 million people in prison, where they aren’t contributing to the economy, aren’t paying taxes.

And we’re just talking about sentencing; one reason why the Japanese and Norwegian systems might be more effective, is because they focus on rehabilitation. That can mean a lot of things, GED programs, apprenticeships, counseling, but most importantly, a greater focus on rehabilitation has proven to cut 10% off of our recidivism rate. That’s huge.

About half the people in our prison right now are repeat offenders. So 10% of that is more than 100,000 people- $2.5 billion dollars. And even if it cost us the full $2.5 billion to make our rehabilitation programs work, that’s 100,000 fewer victims.

ID: But if you’re so enamored of cost saving, what about private prisons?

B: The largest issue with private prisons is that they cut corners. Their main goal is making money, not protecting its staff or the general public. So they’ve become notorious for hiring fewer or less well trained staff. This leads to a 50% increase in violence, both to the staff and inmates. Private prisons have also inflated their ability to cut costs by refusing more expensive inmates.

I think there’s also a question of legitimacy. I think on some level, inmates believe that in a state run facility they’re being treated as fairly as possible with taxpayer dollars. I think in a for-profit prison, they feel like any short-comings of the prison are coming at their expense, so someone can make money off them.

And finally, private prisons have so far been more expensive. In Arizona, $1,600 more per inmate. Right now, private prisons don’t work.

I’m obviously not a libertarian- I don’t think the government should get the hell out of our business whatever the circumstances- far from it. And I have an agenda, in this discussion, a very specific one. I don’t want people murdered in the streets. I don’t want children orphaned. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else, ever again. And the evidence suggests that there are things we can do better to make our country safer. There’s absolutely no explanation for why we aren’t even trying.

ID: But aren’t private prisons potentially like charter schools, little laboratories where new ideas can be tested out?

B: They could have been, and maybe they could be still. But they haven’t. They’ve been focused on trying to make money off our penal system. I’d welcome a prison that was experimenting, and trying to bring down our appalling recidivism rates- even if it were being run for profit- but it’s foolish not to acknowledge the conflicting interests at play there.

And I think prisons are only a part of the equation. Our prison population is as high as it is because of longer sentences. Some of that is a consequence of minimum sentencing guidelines and the war on terror- which is a side issue- but overall, it’s a justice issue as much as a penal one.

ID: Heheh, you said penal.

B: Thanks for keeping the conversation on a high road.

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