Tag Archives: media

Crimes Against Criminals Don’t Count

Crime has fallen precipitously since the high of the early ’90s.   For example, from 1980 to 2005, the estimated incidence of rape fell by 85%.  In 1990, there were 2,245 homicides  in NYC.  In 2010, there were only 536.  Crime has continued to fall even during the recession.

But this is not actually true.  Crime has merely been transplanted and concentrated in our nation’s prisons and, incredibly, crime rate statistics do not include crimes which occur in prison.  This is totally understandable, right?  Crimes against criminals don’t count!  But, lately I have pretended that they do count, which has led to some basic research about the U.S. penal system, to a discovery of an obnoxiously worthy cause, and now I am less content in my ignorance and apathy–a rookie mistake.  (If somebody can explain all this away please let me know!)

In recent posts, I noted the media frenzy around Trayvon Martin’s death and that, while the incident was tragic, murder by strangers, especially neighborhood watch volunteers, is not a top societal problem.  In an effort to walk my talk I am taking the next few posts avoiding the latest stories (Obama’s for gay marriage!?) in order to highlight the critical situation in our burgeoning penal system.  These issues receive little attention, and, in my opinion, could easily be much improved.  For those in search of a crusade, you might consider it.

Thoughtful citizens take note: the U.S. prison population has boomed (this would make a good voting quiz question).  It rose 400% from 1980 to 2007, while the general population grew 33% in the same period, until U.S. prisons housed 2.3 million with about 5 million people on parole–a total population greater than the municipalities of Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco combined.  This makes the United States the most incarcarated country in the world and second most in known history (supposedly the USSR under Stalin just edges us out).  Today, the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated people.  We spend $70 billion of the $200 billion spent globally on keeping people locked up.

Many factors contribute to the rise in the U.S. prison population.  One is the war on drugs.  Another is 3 strike and other laws that demand stricter penalties which the public demanded after the rise in crime in the 80s and 90s.  Unfortunately, offenses that count towards 3 strike laws can be quite minor, such as stealing videos from wallmart, etc.  Life sentences are also given out more often than they used to be.  In 2003, 127,677 Americans were serving life sentences, an 83% jump in 11 years.  For these reasons and others, the prison population grew.

At first, the scale of this prison population spike just seemed strange.  After all, have we really had a 400% increase in depravity in the last 30 years?  Regardless, perhaps the rise is gravy if prison life means simply reading, watching TV, and exercising.  But the truth seems a bit more complicated. (Part 2 to come.)

(Unattributed quotes or stats are pulled from a fairly well-known article by Christopher Glazek.)

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A Note to George Zimmerman

Last week’s post sparked great discussion.  It is so gratifying tackling these issues with so many friends.  Throughout those conversations, the following three points emerged:

First, as per usual, I am entirely unimpressed with the issues that the media and public choose to care about.  Obesity, to name just one issue, kills millions and costs the US economy at least $300 billion a year and is treated primarily with those two incredibly cost-prohibitive treatments: diet and exercise.

Horrible and solvable issues abound and the Trayvon shooting is not one of them.  All the ranting about this being part of a larger issue about gun control and “Stand your Ground” laws is silly.  Perhaps we will get more cases like this because of these new laws, but right now each year about 56.5% of gun-related deaths in this country are suicides, a majority of what is left is drug or gang related, only 14% of gun deaths involve strangers, and on the whole violent crime like this has continued to decline across the country since the 1980s.  The rise of homicidal neighborhood watch volunteers is not likely to be an important public health issue in the future.

Second, we must be slow to judge what happened and why it happened (this video was something that made me pause).  This story has inspired racial outrage prematurely.  Of course, it very well might be racism that killed Trayvon Martin.  If so, when that is discovered to be the case, I will agree that it is part of a disturbing, larger trend of racism.  But the trends that I see right now are an America who jumps to conclusions when the victim of a shooting is black and progressives who jump to conclusions about gun owners.  So, my progressive friends, take it from me: I find the second amendment archaic, stand your ground laws unwise, vigilanteism foolish, and the modern Republican Party upsetting.  But nonetheless, Zimmerman deserves to be tried based on the laws of his state and not your sense of what is right and wrong.  He should have his day in court and, if you are truly an open-minded liberal, in the court of your opinion.

Third, I have something to say to Zimmerman himself.  (If he is anything like me, he probably spends too much time looking at his story online, so I hope he finds this.)

Zimmerman, I don’t know you, and I don’t know what happened, but please know that I’m feeling for you man, for the fame that has rushed in on you, and for the tragic circumstances that led to it.  Two years ago, I almost hit a baby in a stroller while pulling out of a gas station.  I cannot imagine what you are going through having actually killed a 17-year-old.  And now it must seem like your whole life is out of your control and you don’t know who your friends are.  I am sorry so much has been taken from you so quickly without a conviction to justify it.

But do me a favor.  I know my little traffic accident made me think about giving up cars entirely–that perhaps it just wasn’t worth speeding around at high velocity in large hulks of metal if I could destroy something so precious with it–but I ultimately didn’t because it was too inconvenient. But you could succeed where I failed.  I am wondering, has this experience caused you to reflect anew on whether owning personal handguns is worth it?  If you came out against gun ownership right now, or even sold your own guns, it would send a strong statement.  If you don’t change your mind on guns, I respect that, but you should still think about it.  Very soon your 15 minutes of fame will be gone, your national audience will dissipate, and you will lose the chance to effect enormous change.  Don’t waste the moment. ; )