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Some Thoughts on Crime and Punishment Rates

By Ed Mead

Elsewhere in this issue of the PLN we reported figures reflecting that the nation's murder rate for 1991 reached it highest level in a decade, topping 24,000 for the first time, a 25 percent increase since 1985. We pointed out that America's murder toll is more than 2.5 times greater than the combined 1988 murder total of Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan.

In earlier issues we've reported similar figures, reflecting increases in other categories of crime. "The Uniform Crime Rate Report," we wrote in an earlier issue, "shows that during the same period [1990] rape and assault were up by 10 percent, and robbery was up by 9 percent. These increases boosted the overall violent crime index rate to 8 percent higher than the same period last year.

Indicative of these articles is a quote by Bureau of Justice Statistics director Steve Dillingham, who said: "The annual increase of more than 80,000 inmates from midyear 1989 to midyear 1990 was the largest annual growth in 65 years of prison population statistics." So all major categories of crime are on the rise, and the number of people being locked up for committing these crimes continues to grow as well. But if present criminal justice policies are correct, if they are working properly, wouldn't the rate of crime be decreasing? Would not people feel more safe when walking the streets at night?

How can people measure whether the existing correctional policies are working? One good means is by checking the crime rates. If locking more and more people up for longer and longer periods of time had measurable benefits, then there might be some justification for continuing to support a failing system of corrections. But are people in fact any safer today? Not according to the figures we continually cite.

Given the realities of the current situation, an argument could be made for the ridiculous proposition that prisons cause crime. The more people you put in prison the more crime there is! Today we have some 1.2 million Americans locked up behind bars, that's double the 1980 number, and more than the population of San Diego (the nation's sixth largest city). And the count is continuing to jump even higher at record breaking rates.

At the present rate of growth in the national prison population, warns Warren Cikins of the Bookings institution (a government funded think tank), more than half of all Americans will be in prison by the year 2053. The other half will presumably be working in the burgeoning corrections industry. At present, the cost of local, state and federal jails and prisons to U.S. taxpayers is $20.3 billion a year. That's more than the federal government spends on all natural-resources and environmental programs ($18.6 billion) .

Of course crime is not caused by prisons, even if these institutions do work to perpetuate and make it more serious. Crime is rooted in a decaying social system and the poverty, discrimination and rage it creates. Collapsing social systems, from slave-holding Rome to feudal London, have traditionally relied upon more and more repression as the means to maintain their crumbling order. They were unable to see crime as a mere symptom of a deeper malady.

In seventeenth century England the intensity of repression grew until at one point such modest offenses as chopping down a tree on a public lane, killing a rabbit, or the picking of a pocket were all capital [death penalty] crimes. The fact that such intense levels of repression were not at all effective was lost on the feudal ruling class. Indeed, in was common for pickpockets to be diligently picking the pockets of the crowd who had gathered to witness the execution of a pickpocket.

Our capitalist ruling class, like its feudal predecessor, will ultimately pass into the dust bin of history. But between now and then there is much work to be done in the direction of educating poor and working people about the real causes and nature of crime. We on the inside, and our loved ones on the streets, are the only people capable and positioned to communicate these realities. Yesterday the forces of repression were targeting sex offenders for special persecution. Today they are doing those same types of things to regular prisoners. Tomorrow they will be zeroing in on the community; doing to it what they are doing to us today. We must work to put the people on their guard.

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