Reading George Will's June 22 op-ed in the Washington Post "More Prisoners: Less Crime" one would think that he must have moved to Second Life and given up reading the papers. He speaks of a "third ear" to listen for what is not said about criminal justice and then quotes Sen. Barack Obama for talking about the subject where Will claims silence.
He should consider reading the Wall Street Journal, which has had an extensive series on American prisons that presents a picture that contrasts radically with the views that he presents. Of course he should not ignore Mother Jones.
Paraphrasing Stalin, who spoke of a single death as a tragedy but the death of millions as a statistic, when a man commits a crime he bears responsibility, but when a nation imprisons over 2.3 million of its citizens the nation bears responsibility for those millions. These are people and not a statistic.
What failures of education and opportunity led our country to this extraordinary symptom of social collapse? The fact that most of these people are poor, and a disproportionate percentage are black most certainly should be a major topic of the presidential campaign.
Will speaks of prison as a cure for crime. The record is that prison is not a cure for crime. The majority who leave prison leave are even less able to cope in society than when they entered. This is why the national recidivism rate averages nearly 60 percent. They return to their chaotic and crime-ridden communities, sometimes as more hardened criminals, but more often as frightened people without skills or support to find jobs or housing. If a man is denied work, survival becomes possible only by charity or extra-legal means.
Their children, and most have children, are the worse for the experience. As a result, far more are likely to wind up in prison. Qualifying Will's statements, the increased incarceration rate has not had a universal impact on reducing crime. In fact, in some states the rate of crime is inversely proportional to increased incarceration.
While racial imbalance in sentencing did not result in all of the 562,000 black men in prison, it is a well-researched topic that is agreed to by the vast majority of scholars who have studied the topic. (See Racial Disparity on the Sentencing Project's Web site.)
Racial imbalance is a systemic factor not isolated to the situation of crack versus powder cocaine that has resulted in hundreds of death sentences for innocent men and thousands suffering the tragedy of prison sentences for crimes committed by others.
Will has missed one of the most important events of 2008 -- the passage of the Second Chance Act, which is a bipartisan effort sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, and others across the political spectrum. The act passed the Senate by unanimous vote and demonstrates that this country is finally waking up to the nightmare of its prisons and doing something about recidivism.
Will should consult with Brownback, who speaks from actual knowledge (having spent time in prison voluntarily) to better understand the topic he is writing about.
A typical position for candidates is to be tough on crime and to throw the criminals into prison and throw away the keys. Will's article, written in the guise of a responsible columnist, follows the same mantra. What makes the article abhorrent is his entanglement of race, crime and presidential campaign politics in a subtly partisan way. We do not need this kind of crap. We need a serious effort to do something about the problem.
The American people are justifiably outraged with the failure of a criminal justice system that spends more to warehouse the poor in prisons than it would to send these same people to Harvard. Perhaps we should charter Harvard to take over the nation's prisons and transform them into true correctional facilities, educating men and women who are generally poorly equipped to succeed in modern society.
Harvard Professor Emeritus James Q. Wilson, as "America's premier social scientist," should offer better solutions to the problem of why so many Americans are in prison than to build more prisons. There is no way to build out of this problem.
Vid Beldavs is secretary for the Bloomington-based Citizens for Effective Justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read George Will's op ed in the Washington Post.