Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 
Discarding Bad Apples
The Role of Prison in a Meritocratic Society
By David G. Young 

WASHINGTON, DC, February 22, 2000 --  

With the U.S. prison population nearing the 2 million mark1, opponents of America's incarceration boom are preparing an all-out assault on mandatory minimum sentences and "three-strikes and your out" laws. The apparent plan is to harness the climate of prosperity and declining crime to get people to treat criminals more humanely. They have some good suggestions, but their insane bleeding-heart sympathies for violent criminals will likely doom the cause.

Elliot Currie presents a good example of this attitude in his 1998 book, Crime and Punishment in America. Currie is opposed to anti-violence "three strikes and your out" laws because he says they are unfair and not cost effective. What does he propose instead? No surprise here: Currie proposes increases in spending for antipoverty, unemployment, drug treatment, and education programs.2 Such old-guard left-wing views of crime are common in the movement. The non-profit Sentencing Project, for example, seeks a rollback of the prison population because America's treatment of prisoners is "inhumane."3

All of these anti-prison groups like to compare the United States to other countries, noting that the only nation in the world that imprisons a higher percentage of its population is Russia. Perhaps the point of these comparisons is to make us feel ashamed of our high prison population, and encourage us to solve the underlying social problems in the same way as other countries.

The problem with this suggestion is that the prescription is worse than the problem. Low crime societies typically differ greatly from the United States in that they are extraordinarily homogenous. Japan and Scandinavia have nowhere near the ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity present in the United States. Most people there look the same, act the same, and earn a similar amount of money. Much of America's strength exists in combining its diversity with a meritocracy. People from all over the world come to compete in this system. The best and brightest from this diverse group rise to the top, earn their riches, and strengthen the economy. But since a meritocratic system must produce losers as well as winners, the American system will naturally produce a larger pool of people who are willing to resort to crime.

Even if it were possible for the United States to rework its economic and social structures to reduce its crime rate and prison population, it wouldn't be a good idea. Doing so would destroy America's meritocratic system and make tiresome lemmings out of a strong and diverse population.

But isn't a society that has to imprison a large percentage of its population an inhumane failure? I may be a card-carrying member of the ACLU, but I find this a little bit hard to swallow. Civil liberties are possible because of the existence of a civil society. The fundamental rule of a civil society is that people must respect each other's civil rights. In simple terms, that means no killing, no stabbing, no raping, no robbing, and no burgling. People who violate this fundamental rule should lose their right to live in a civil society.

But, how long should they lose the right to live in society? Is the 25 years provided by California's 6-year-old three-strikes law too long? Aside from financial concerns, I frankly don't care. People who commit acts of violence deserve to lose their rights for a long time.

It has long been known by sociologists that criminal behavior drops dramatically with age. The Sentencing Project estimates that 66 percent of people arrested for a violent crime are under 30.4 According to this line of reasoning, it doesn't make sense to put a person who commits a third crime at age 26 in prison until age 51, when he is unlikely to commit other crimes if released 20 years earlier.

But there is a flip side to this argument that the criminal apologists won't mention. If an 18-year-old is convicted of even a second violent crime, keeping him in prison for the next 20 years could be a good idea. An effective reform might be to deny freedom until age 35 to anyone committing two crimes before 30. It is undeniably true that keeping someone in jail prevents him from committing further violence against those on the outside. Putting bad apples in prison during the years of highest risk makes sense.

The anti-prison activists' do have a good case when it comes to mandatory minimum sentencing laws. These laws appeared in the late '80s and early '90s to combat the epidemic in crack cocaine, and force judges to send drug dealers to extended prison sentences. These sentences are useless; drug dealers are guilty of only a non-violent, consensual act. These sentences actually hurt public safety. The explosion of drug inmates has led to prison overcrowding, and the early release of other offenders who actually are violent.

In 1997, researcher John DiIulio Jr. estimated that a quarter of new inmates are guilty of no crimes other than drug offenses.5 Drug laws are so ineffective at deterring drug use and dealing that they nearly convert prison into a rite of passage in the inner city. In Washington, DC, half of black men between the ages of 18 and 35 are under the control of the criminal justice system.6

If anti-prison activists wish to advance any of their agenda, they must abandon apologism for violent criminals, and focus on reducing the number of people imprisoned as casualties of the failed drug war. Given the utter failure of anti-drug laws to reduce illegal drug use in the United States over the last two decades, an anti-prison campaign that focuses on this failure may actually prove fruitful.

  1. The Sentencing Project, NATIONAL INMATE POPULATION OF TWO MILLION PROJECTED IN 2000, As listed February 21, 2000
  2. Currie, Elliot, Crime and Punishment in America, February 1998
  3. The Sentencing Project, Ibid
  4. The Sentencing Project, Why "3 Strikes and You're Out" Won't Reduce Crime, As listed February 21, 2000
  5. The New York Times, Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling, September 28, 1997
  6. Ibid