Saturday, January 14, 2006

Won't help public safety to "round up the usual suspects"

Reacting to an article in Governing magazine that highlighted Dallas' crime troubles, Houston Strategies blogger Tory Gattis thinks about implied prescriptions for Houston, but his discussion of crimefighting struck me as dishearteningly facile. He advises:
"Aggressively stomp out the recent crime spike, before it becomes a trend - the same way the Federal Reserve pulls out the stops to stamp out inflation at the first whiff, before it grows out of control - even at the risk of slowing down the economy. This means hiring and training more police and putting pressure on hot-spot apartment complexes to increase their security. I'd also like to see an active exploration of new technology, like ankle-bracelets with GPS tracking and wireless reporting for ex-cons on probation or parole (since most crimes, esp. violent ones, are repeat offenders). Crime reported? Check the database logs to see if any ex-cons were in the vicinity at the time, then look up their current location and pick 'em up."
Round up the usual suspects! Wow. The level of debate on criminal justice in this country amazes me sometimes. I left this reply in the comments:
With one in twenty Texan on probation, parole or in prison, your ankle bracelet idea is a) unworkable and b) totalitarian. Those are tools to use for folks who need high-intensity supervision -- typically as a last stop before revocation -- but aren't appropriate for everybody. Looking past rhetoric, supervision is expensive so it occurs on a continuum; it's not a one-size-fits-all deal.

Parole and probation should focus scarce resources on supervising the truly dangerous. Especially for probationers, some need less supervision, and all should be given a chance to earn their way off supervision, giving incentives for good behavior that in the long run work better than increased enforcement. Finally, perhaps the greatest public safety benefit might come from revamping evaluations for probation and parole officers and departments to hold them accountable for employment and recidivism rates.
Tory's a smart guy, but he's the kind of guy who thinks about crime in terms of how it affects property values. That's understandable. That's probably how most folks think about it, if they think about it at all, but it's a superficial viewpoint disconnected from underlying realities. You can't just throw money at crime and make it go away. Bottom line: In an era when prisons are full, the probation system is broken, and Texas prisons must release dangerous felons to make room for low-level offenders, even if you have more cops to "pick 'em up" it's no public safety solution, just the beginning of a new set of problems.

For crime victims, defendants and the justice system, public safety isn't just another item on a checklist to put in the city's promotional brochure -- real people's lives are affected, and when the government intervenes, as always, it can either make things better or make things worse. The same thing goes for "civil liberties."

For that matter, Texas state and local governments can't use deficits to finance their budgets (outside of voter-approved bonds), so somebody must pay -- I notice Tory's suggestion of "hiring and training more police" wasn't accompanied by a request to "raise my taxes, please," but that's what it amounts to. Cops are among the city's most expensive employees, and it may be that Houston needs more of them. But with limited resources, such big ticket items should be part of an integrated approach that prioritizes putting more resources into preventing crime, especially preventing recidivism.

I don't know what it is about crime and punishment stuff that makes small government conservatives forget how badly government can screw things up whenever it gets involved. The same concept applies in spades to interventions in people's lives via police, courts and jails. And when they get it wrong, public safety worsens. I don't mean to jump on Tory, but easy rhetoric like that makes it a lot more likely the politicos get it wrong.

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