Once again, the legal vultures at The American Bar Association are out to rid America of its foulest menace. No, not repeat offenders, but the far more insidious "tough on crime" legislation that has lead to a steady reduction in the crime rate for more than a decade (including a drop in murders from 9.6 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.6 in 2002). On the ABA chopping block are the mandatory minimum sentences, the so—called "three—strikes legislation," and those barriers to the revolving prison door that came in after a crime wave deluged American cities in the 1980s. Now, after nearly 14 years of declining crime rates, the self—proclaimed 'national representative of the legal profession' says it's time for a change.
"We can no longer sit by as more and more people—particularly in minority communities—are sent away for longer and longer periods of time,"
ABA President Dennis Archer announced last Tuesday at a news conference. In October last year Archer formed the ABA Justice Kennedy Commission to address the
'inadequacies — and the injustices — in our prison and correctional systems'
identified by Justice Anthony Kennedy in his speech to the 2003 ABA Annual Meeting. The recommendations will be considered by the ABA's governing body for adoption as policy at its Annual Meeting in August.
The report is a familiar rehash of crime statistics showing the U.S. imprisons more people than any other country in the world, with more than 2.1 million people behind bars. But its pages are noticeably silent on the reasons why so many Americans are locked up. This doesn't seem to be important. What is important —— at least to the ABA —— is that fewer offenders go to jail. How few is enough? Today, a person who commits a serious crime has a better than 98 percent chance of avoiding prison. If the ABA's recommendations are taken into account that figure will doubtless rise.
As UCLA researcher James Q. Wilson has shown, most criminals are young (between 14—21) and white, but beyond that social scientists are at a loss to explain the causes of crime. Liberals of course blame poverty, but are equally unable to explain why crime rates soared in the Sixties and Seventies, as aid to the poor soared, and leveled off with Welfare Reform.
Besides reducing the number of criminals who patronize our prisons, the ABA recommends government smother convicts with more of our super—effective social and educational programs. "We have to remember that roughly 95 percent of the people we lock up eventually get out," said Stephen A. Saltzburg, chair of the ABA Justice Kennedy Commission.
"Our communities will be safer and our corrections budgets less strained if we better prepared inmates to successfully reenter society without returning to a life of crime.'
But most inmates already have the pick of a cornucopia of betterment programs, including free GED or college classes, job skills mentoring, and access to the same jobs programs and employment assistance as every one else. Yet despite all these giveaways, one—third of the more than 650,000 inmates released this year will return to prison. The reason is not because inmates do not have enough options or government assistance; it is simply easier to get rich quick selling drugs. One—fourth of the nation's inmates are in prison because of drug—related crimes, according to Justice Department stats. And these are the ones with the highest recidivist rates.
The Martha Stewarts and the middle—aged guys who murder their wives for the insurance money are not the ones keeping the doors of the prison system spinning like the windows of Vegas slot machine. And yet the ABA's report concludes that 'mandatory minimum sentences tend to be tough on the wrong people,' referring to our old friends the drug traffickers, the same folks responsible for much of the bloody gang warfare that in the eighties and nineties laid waste to large swaths of the inner city.
Will the ABA's recommendations to reduce the time drug traffickers spend in prison prevent drug traffickers from trafficking in drugs? Don't be silly. It may get them back on the streets quicker, which is a good thing for those yuppies looking to score some primo coke. According to USA Today, in 2002, Kentucky
"ordered every prisoner convicted of non—violent drug and property crimes to be released 90 days early. That plan was suspended a year later after an outcry over repeat offenses committed by some new parolees."
As Kentucky goes, so goes the nation.
It is a tragedy that African American males born in 2004 have a 1 in 3 chance of being incarcerated sometime during their lifetime, compared to a 1 in 17 chance for white males, and that in some cities more than half of young African—American men are under the supervision of the criminal justice system. So what is the ABA's recommendation to turn this problem around? The commission recommends repealing mandatory minimum sentences, expanding the use of executive clemency to reduce sentences, combating racial profiling, funding vague community partnerships, and finally establishing criminal justice racial and ethnic task forces to study and make even more recommendations concerning racial and ethnic disparity in the various stages of the criminal justice process.
Fortunately few policymakers take any ABA recommendations seriously. One of President Bush's first actions in office was to end the tradition of providing the ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary with the names of White House judicial nominees before they are made public. This, according to the Wall Street Journal, meant the ABA was finally acknowledged for what it really is: a political interest group with liberal leanings.
In his 1994 book Thinking About Crime, James Q. Wilson wrote that criminal behavior was simply a rational choice made by rational beings. If so, the ABA recommendations will only make crime a more reasonable option.
Christopher Orlet's web site is www.christopherorlet.net