Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Liberals try scare tactics touting "impending crime wave"

Washington Post pundit David Broder says crime may be lurking as an issue more powerful with the electorate than foreign affairs, discussing a national survey by a liberal think tank called Third Way. I'd not heard of the organization but I found a copy of the poll (pdf) online. They also have published an accompanying report with the scare-mongering title, "The Impending Crime Wave." Writes Broder:
when the polling firm Cooper & Secrest Associates asked 1,139 Americans in December which threat they took most seriously, 69 percent chose violent crime and only 19 percent named terrorist attack.

The survey was part of a striking report released yesterday by Third Way, a liberal think tank, and several governors, warning that the crime issue, which has slipped off the political agenda since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, is about to return.

"Four new and dangerous sociological trends are converging to disturb the peace and are threatening a crisis of crime, if not addressed," the report says.

The trends it cites include a huge increase in the number of criminals due to leave prison in the next five years, the infiltration of criminal gangs into the surge of illegal immigrants, the bulge in the number of young people entering the highest-crime years and the technology revolution that has made the Internet a place of danger for unsupervised youths.

The underlying numbers are startling. Twenty years ago, the country's total prison population was 700,000. Next year alone, that many will be released from prison, and, if past trends hold, nearly two-thirds will be rearrested.

In the next five years, the number of young adults and teenagers will have increased by 1 million, and, if past patterns hold, that will boost the number of crimes by 2.5 million.

Here's how Third Way's pollster broke out the big-picture ideological divisions on crime:
Our research identified three distinct groups of Americans on the crime issue. The most prominent was the 55% of Americans whom we call “Solve-the-Problem” voters. They are non-ideological pragmatists who are open to a very active government role in crime prevention and intervention if properly designed and framed to emphasize personal responsibility. These voters are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and are dispersed evenly throughout the country.

The remaining two groups are far more ideological. “Throw-the-Book” voters comprise a small minority of the population and oppose any efforts at changing criminal behavior beyond enforcement and prison. They are overwhelmingly conservative. “Read-a-Book” voters believe wholeheartedly in rehabilitation and are far more likely to be liberal than the general population.
The states, as the traditional laboratories of democracy, are predictably doing a better job than the federal government at reacting to overincarceration and crime, says Broder, though to read Third Way's report you'd think only the federal government can fight local crime. That said, the report and Broder's discussion, while containing some good ideas, reinforced to me why bad crime policy in general is a bipartisan affair, not just the domain of liberals or conservatives. Let's walk through the four crime producing trends they cite.

1. An increasing number of criminals leaving prison in the next five years. In Texas, this is already happening: 70,000 inmates leave prison and go onto parole every single year. This argues for three things, in my view: Beefed up parole supervision with reduced caseloads, expanded re-entry programming, particularly for housing, employment and transportation, and passage of the federal Second Chance Act and related state-level legislation to expand resources and programming for prisoner re-entry. To fail to do that when the demographers can tell us in advance what's coming borders on irresponsible, as does the failure to approve the Second Chance Act, in my view, several years ago now when it was equally clear it was needed.

2. The "infiltration of criminal gangs into the surge of illegal immigrants." Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows this is one of my personal bailiwicks - I think multinational drug cartels are a much bigger threat to Texas' security than most people realize, but the impetus to "crack down" on illegal immigrants whose sole crime is crossing the border to seek a job has clouded the activities of smugglers amidst literally millions of hard working immigrants. So the solution here, to me, is to expand immigration quotas and legalize immigrant workers in the United States already, so the criminal smuggling gangs will become more isolated and easier to target.

3. The "bulge in the number of young people entering the highest-crime years." This in my view is the biggest determining factor of crime beyond any single other element you can name (there are many variables, but I consider this one of a handful of truly primary causes). It is as inevitable as the sunrise. What's not inevitable is how we deal with it. Zero tolerance fills up prisons with people who don't need to be there, and a felony record makes it less likely they'll ever grow up and become productive citizens. So separating out the truly dangerous offenders from the type of "criminal" whose errors are more juvenile than malicious makes a lot of sense, and Third Way had a long list of interesting sounding juvie programs that are worth consideration.

4. Their last major "cause" of crime I consider largely bogus: "the technology revolution that has made the Internet a place of danger for unsupervised youths." This is empty scare rhetoric. Your kids were always in danger from the small percentage of predators in the population, and that number has not risen substantially because of the Internet, it only has offered a new medium that competes with driving around town looking for the lonely kid at the corner teen hangout. I believe the Internet poses new criminal opportunities and investigative challenges, but I don't believe that in of itself it causes crime to increase except to the extent it causes commerce (and hence the criminal proportion of commerce) to expand generally.

There's a lot of useful information here, but there's a lot missing, both from Third Way's analysis and from Broder's.

The biggest shortcoming in the report is its failure to focus on the need to improve the mental health services to divert low-level mentally ill offenders from the justice system. That would help a lot more than any amount of resources thrown at Internet crime, without a doubt. As of 2007, 30% of Texas prison inmates were former clients of the state's indigent mental health system. That's a huge factor that's only mentioned in passing in their analysis, but you really can't fix the system or even seriously talk about doing so without dealing with America's mental health crisis.

Similarly, the report advocates the continued criminalization of substance abuse, and at several points implies that arresting more drug users and low-level dealers somehow improves safety, decrying for example cuts to the Byrne grant program by the Bush administration that I personally support.

And on immigration, while they've identified the problem accurately, the solutions proposed aren't "progressive" by my standards at all: They want to "shut down the border" and launch a prison building plan to "Create enough beds so that all priority illegal immigrants who are apprehended can be punished or deported." Do we really need a prison building binge for immigration? And with progressives like those, what do we need right wingers for?

I've long believed that crime and punishment is a bipartisan issue, or rather a non-partisan one. Big government liberals like prisons as much as tuff on crime conservatives do, just for different reasons. IMO we don't need a "third way" on crime, we need a second.

UPDATE: A commenter over at Sentencing Law & Policy lets us know that Third Way is a Clintonista think tank associated with the Democratic Leadership Conference.


Anonymous said...

Your column, the report and the editorial are all good food for thought. Too bad there isn't more rational debate on this subject among the politicos running for office.

Anonymous said...

Nice reframing of "third way" into "second." We should also run with "do the crime, do the time, do more crime" and "three strikes? no strikes. stop crime before it happens." Why don't people hire us for this stuff? Keep up the great work.--Mike

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Why don't people hire us for this stuff?" From your mouth to God's ear, amigo.

The fundamental dynamic in criminal justice politics is a stable, long-term coalition of Big Government Liberals - who think every problem can be solved through expanded control of the state over the individual - and Tuff on Crime Conservatives. (Ann Richards was a bigger prison builder than George W. Bush in Texas, for example.) That bipartisan/non-partisan faction continually beats down more libertarian and humanist wings in both parties, no matter who's in power.

Ron in Houston said...

Are we descending into a nation of scared little rabbits?

Is it just me or does fear mongering seem to be on the rise?

Grits, thanks for helping break through the fear and bringing some rationality to the subject.

Unknown said...

I think Third Way' is a Bloomberg front, if memory serves. From a Daily Kos post by a fellow calls himself 'Kagro X'. Bloomberg no friend of freedom, other than the freedom to make money of course.

Broder has been making pro Bloomberg"bipartisanship" and Unity 08- what a joke- noises for a while now.

"A think tank with close ties to the telecommunication industry has been working with a key Democrat in the Senate on a domestic surveillance bill that would provide telecommunications companies with retroactive immunity for possibly violating federal law by spying on American citizens at the behest of the Bush administration.

Third Way, a non-profit "progressive" think tank that is funded and controlled by hedge fund managers, corporate lawyers and business executives has advised Sen. Jay Rockefeller on a domestic surveillance bill that includes immunity for telecommunications companies with which Third Way board members have close ties."

Anonymous said...

So...twenty years ago, thanks in no small part to a hyped up anti-crack hysteria (based largely on ignorant tabloid journalism), the mandatory minimum laws get passed, the prisons get built, the people do their mandated time...and they are starting to come out.

What did people expect? That they'd all die in prison? It might have been convenient for those who first put them there, but wasn't likely. And now, here's the (expected) harvest from what was first sown.

Another flock of DrugWar chickens coming home to roost. Didn't have to happen, if we had sensible laws, but nooooo, gotta lock up the results of social problems to look like you're dealing with the root cause, when anything but has happened.

And now hundreds of thousands of hardened felons will be free...to starve, as most will not be able to find gainful employment, even were they not to face discrimination for having been cons levied against them (as in age discrimination and lack of skills). Expect the recidivism to go sky-high in a couple years.

Anonymous said...

Have these sorts of predictions ever been correct?

We were told in the 90s about a coming demographic wave of super-predators too... never materialized.

Maybe liberals think the crime issue plays to their favor in the coming election. Historically that hasn't been true though.


Anonymous said...

Have these sorts of predictions ever been correct?

We were told in the 90s about a coming demographic wave of super-predators too... never materialized.

I always thought they were talking about Republicans.

Anonymous said...

"By their works, ye shall know them."

Depends upon what you mean by 'liberals', I suppose. Ol' Mad King Georgie the Third and his gang thought the American Founding Fathers were 'liberals' of the classic, libertarian stripe.

Nowadays, 'liberal' means using government to solve social problems, the exact opposite of the orientation of the Founders. And in the issue of the DrugWar, it was the modern progenitors of today's 'liberals' who got the 'social engineering' ball rolling with the first Federal drug laws.

That those laws (and no small number of the supposed 'liberals' who proposed those laws) had a racist underside was something that wasn't considered at the time to be of any great import.

But, their 'works' are easily seen, today: the vast majority of those in prison on drug charges are minorities.

Seems it doesn't matter whether its' 'liberal' 'compassion' or 'conservative' 'compassion', when it's wedded to using the power of The State to bludgeon people into accepting the agenda of either group, a mess results. It's why the Founders were smart enough to leave well enough alone - as in "Mind your own business!" A pity that following their example seems to have gone out of style in the last century through to today...