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The Tough-On-Crime Myth: Real Solutions to Cut Crime

American penal reform movements have a long and distinguished history: that of middle-class activists working to check the excesses of the centralized state against the underclass. Some of the reformers had good hearts, some didn't. Either way, they're responsible for many of the most hellish elements of incarceration, from the penitentiary itself and solitary confinement to parole and the indeterminate sentence. It's not unduly cynical to say that reformists' efforts to put a less blatantly oppressive face on the social structure have served to deflate efforts
against that social structure. This ensures that reformers maintain their cushy place in the hierarchy and feel good about themselves in the process.

The Real War on Crime and The Tough-On-Crime Myth fit solidly in this
reformist tradition. The Real War on Crime is the product of thirty-four
generally progressive folks with experience around criminal justice issues, formed into "The National Criminal Justice Commission." Most of the Commission's offerings' are useful. They deflate misleading statistics (though they aren't immune from uncritically using some misleading statistics themselves, such as in regards to what constitutes
"the violent offender"); speak out against mandatory minimums; point out the ways in which race effects every stage of the criminal justice system, leading to terribly skewed minority representation in prisons (though this process is described with much more strength and passion in Commission member Jerome Miller's Search and Destroy: African-American Males in the Criminal Justice System); describe the way in which the
media whips up fear of crime, creating a political climate where vindictive soundbites are the rule in criminal justice discourse; and identify the prison-industrial complex as a driving force behind mass imprisonment.
But the book is skewed by class bias. It is obviously addressed to the middle class and uses utilitarian arguments to make its case. The human devastation our current prison policies wreak are discussed, but the gist of the Commission's argument is always pecuniary: prisons are inefficient and overly-expensive for the goal they aim to achieve ("public safety" in the Commission members' minds).

The Commission members say the current prison system "does not work."
But everything works, or else it wouldn't exist. The Commission simply doesn't ask who it works for.

A lamer book which covers much of the same material (and indeed which
contains many of the same examples and case studies) is Peter Elikann's The Tough-On-Crime Myth. Elikann's redundant work is based almost entirely on mainstream media articles and the studies which were cited in those articles. Many of his statistics are bunk, the sort of crude manipulations The Real War on Crime denounced. Elikann, a defense
lawyer, corporate journalist and criminal justice pundit, also uses many
long quotes about the criminal justice system from people he's defended.
Elikann's treatment of the War on Crime is representative of his approach throughout the book. Elikann feels the drug war strategy "sounded good in theory" and was "well-intentioned," and, after falsely making decriminalization and legalization of drugs synonymous, comes out against the latter while obscuring the aims of proponents of the former. He calls for the "dejailification" of nonviolent offenders, and the treatment of drug problems more like a health problem (i.e., what proponents of decriminalization stand for, but Elikann's version endorses expanded police powers).

The gist of these two books is that it is both unnecessary and too expensive to lock up the sheer volume of nonviolent offenders that the U.S. currently does. Instead, they feel, those prison cells should reserved for violent offenders (who it's okay to abandon to lives in cages). The real tragedy in imprisoning a nonviolent offender at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a year, is, as Elikann states, that "We could pay for a police officer or teacher for that price." Elikann seems to favor the former. Because the U.S. has been building too many
prisons, among other things " [police] equipment has gone unbought, newer high-technology procedures have gone unimplemented, and crime-stopping programs have not begun."

Much of the power of the prison movement in the early `70s was that its
members questioned the fundamental premises behind imprisonment, and had
a real understanding of the role prisons play in our society. The Commission and Elikann don't have this same critical bent. Not surprisingly, then, their work perpetuates the status quo. In so doing
they do their part to make sure...

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