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Jewish World Review June 15, 1999 /1 Tamuz 5759

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Ben Wattenberg


Crime hawk turns -- SHOP FOR GOODS among merchants you trust. Shop for opinions among scholars you trust. As they say: "Get a rabbi."

The vexing question before the house is: "Do we have too many people in prison?" It's getting hard to tell the lock-'em-up hard-liners from the root-causes liberals. So let us consider the views of Professor John DiIulio, who has been my rabbi on this matter.

Facts first: In 1980, there were about 500,000 inmates in American prisons and jails. By 1990, just a decade later, that number had more than doubled, to 1.15 million. Recently published data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that the number will pass 2 million by the end of 1999, and climb to about 2.15 million in 2000. That's a 400 percent increase, amounting to 1.5 million additional prisoners!

During the 1980s, violent crime rates declined somewhat and then climbed (probably due to the crack epidemic). Then, from 1991 to 1998, violent crime decreased each year, for a total of about 25 percent according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Homicides have fallen by 35 percent from their peak.

Questions: Has the violent crime rate declined because we've put more bad guys in prison? Who are these new prisoners? Do they deserve to be incarcerated? Are there better alternatives?

Incapacitation works. A thug in prison cannot mug your sister. When at liberty on the street, a typical violent criminal commits about 15 violent crimes per year. When more thugs are incarcerated and when "time served" increases by 14 percent, from 43 months to 49 months, as it has recently, that yields less criminality. (The duration of incarceration continues to climb.) There are other factors, too: A growing economy with lower unemployment is likely correlated with a lower crime rate.

But who are these new prisoners, particularly the half a million or so added since the mid-90s? It is said (endlessly) that the additional prison population comes from incarceration for "drug-related" crimes. The inmates are often described as "drug users" and "minor drug offenders," implying folks are going to prison because we penalize the trivial pursuit of personal recreational substances.

That is twice misleading, but not irrelevant. There has been an increase in prisoners convicted of drug-related crimes, but it has not been disproportionate to the rise of all prisoners. Only 25 percent of prisoners are incarcerated because of any sort of drug connection. Additional muggers, robbers, car-jackers, rapists and murderers are going to the slammer. The more of them behind bars, the safer we are.

And almost no Americans are in prison for simple personal "possession" or "use." Typically the prisoners are "mules," "dealers" and "traffickers," along with a few "drug lords" and "king pins" -- all players in a lucrative drug industry that feasts on getting innocent people hooked. The charge of "possession" is typically used for dealers who have substantial amounts of illegal substances in their control, clearly intended for sale to others, perhaps to your children.

Still, there is a growing case made, including by some hard-liners, that our handling of drug criminals is wrong-headed. DiIulio, 41, of Princeton and the Brookings Institution, is one such. He was one of the original hawk-academics making the case that soft handling of criminals made it easier for violent predators to terrorize the mean streets. He said locking up more of them would help restore order. He believes that for violent criminals the incapacitation strategy has worked and is certainly the most documentable cause for the decline in violent crime.

But in recent articles in the Wall Street Journal and The National Review, DiIulio says "two million prisoners are enough" and calls for "zero prison growth." Why? He says that state mandatory minimum laws have been Velcro for violent offenders but they have been too stiff for others. A different class of prisoner is now being imprisoned, he says, coming from the bottom of the barrel. They are involved in drug commerce, he tells me "but now it's not just the nasties we're putting away. A lot of pathetic losers are in prison, for long times. They haven't been convicted for crimes of violence, and most of them are addicts themselves." The incapacitation argument doesn't apply in this case, he says, because substitute dealers will replace those who have been locked up.

Moreover, he says "there are new and more successful ways of treating addicts, particularly coerced abstinence and faith-based treatment." Under such programs, drug-dealing addicts are put on stiff probation or released early under extra-tough scrutiny, with punishments meted out if they don't show for treatment. DiIulio says these strategies would end the need for additional prisons, free up space for violent criminals and cut the incidence of addiction.

It's an interesting case. If it came from a softy, I'd be leery. Coming from DiIulio, my rabbi, I tend to buy it.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank."


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04/05/99: Lessons of Vietnam, and Serbia
03/26/99: Politics as dog food
03/19/99: Bush-whacked Bush-whackers
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01/25/99: The Vast Right-wing conspiracy and Danny Williams: The last word (hopefully)
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©1999, Creators Syndicate