Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Land of the Free?

On this year's California ballot there are two propositions that deal with crime and punishment. Prop. 34 attempts, once again, to amend the draconian Three Strikes Law and Prop. 36 asks voters to join most of the civilized world by repealing the death penalty. Not surprisingly, the Democratic Party supports both propositions while the ever backward looking Republican Party is true to its conservative roots by opposing any change. An interesting, and
perhaps relevant statistic is that when you add up all the states that voted for McCain and all the states that voted for Obama in 2008 those red states had a 5.8% higher rate of violent crime than the blue states and an 8% higher rate of property theft.

Before I go into why change is needed in these areas, let's look at where crime and punishment currently is in our United States. The USA has 5% of the world's population and imprisons about 25% of the world's inmates. Starting
in 2011, the U.S. prison population was 2,266,362. About one out of every 138 Americans is behind bars, or 743 per 100,000. Compare this with our neighborCanada who has 117, or Japan with only 59. Russia with 584 is a distant
second to America, which proudly claims to be the Land of the Free. So what is going on here? Are Americans far more evil and violent than other people around the world so that we have to protect society by locking
them up? I don't think so. According to Wikipedia the rapid increase in prison population took off in 1980 with Ronald Reagan's war on drugs that sent so many nonviolent drug users to prison. Despite the long record of failure
in the war on drugs, most Republicans, except for Libertarians, and many Democrats are unwilling to incur voter wrath by being labeled as soft on crime. Typically federal courts sentence drug offenders from 5 to 10 years,
while in the rest of the developed world they might get 6 months. Also, we pay judges good money to use their common sense and experience and then we impose mandatory sentencing guidelines so they can't use it. In the case of Three Strikes, people are actually serving life sentences for stealing a bicycle or a pizza. Another serious defect of the Three Strikes law is that innocent people plea bargain to crimes they didn't commit because they just can't risk a guilty verdict.

I believe the problem is that as a political strategy in America, it's hard to be too tough on crime. Just like the defense budget, a politician can't say "We can't afford to spend this much on defense". It's hard for a politician
to get elected by saying, "We can't afford to spend this much on crime," because that sounds like saying we are too hard on criminals.

Perhaps if the average voter thought about how much prisons cost and if the money is really well spent he might be more open to reasonable policies being used in other countries. Cost estimates range from $24,000 per prisoner per
year to over $40,000 in states like California. When you include the $5.1 billion spent building new prisons, the cost to the taxpayer is $60 billion. Politicians rarely say we are going to raise your taxes so we can imprison
record numbers of Americans. It's easy for politicians to say, "Lock them up and throw away the key" if they don't mention the cost. Aggravating the problem is the fact that many prisoners are mentally ill, or mentally
retarded and are often there because were too poor to be adequately represented. The 'tough on crime mentality' in this country has also led to young teens and children being tried as adults. Here again, you have this stark difference between the two parties. Republicans want to look tough and strong by making the goals of incarceration to be punishment and retribution while Democrats tend to believe that protecting society and
rehabilitation should be the goal.

Amending Three Strikes would save California from $150 to $200 million a year, but more than that, we should consider the human cost Three Strikes causes in wasted lives and broken families.

The list of countries that execute ten or more people a year are 1. China, 2. Iran, 3. Saudi Arabia, 4. Iraq, 5. United States (43/year), 6. Yemen, 7. North Korea, and, 8. Somalia. These are mostly authoritarian countries that use the death penalty for political purposes. Do you want to be on this list with these countries?

Listed in the voter guide as to why California should end the death penalty, as 33 other states have done, is that "It is intrinsically wrong", which seems to be acurate but vague. I would argue that if murder is wrong then the state
committing murder in the name of its citizens is also ethically wrong. There is an old adage the "Two wrongs don't make a right" that applies here. Premeditation is used as a major factor to determine whether or not the death
penalty will apply. No murder is more premeditated than when the state executes someone.

Dave Silva
18 September 2012

No comments: