Best policy to reduce LA imprisonment: excise liberalism
This past week, the New Orleans Times-Picayune ran an interesting series on Louisiana corrections policy and its larger ramifications to society. But perhaps the most revealing information from it, pointing to an issue which scarcely gets addressed, came in the form of portraits of the raw product that fuels imprisonment – the miscreants themselves, how they got there, and how policy affects their behavior prior to their infusing into the system.
The series focuses on the state’s stern criminal justice policies that make it apparently the lockup capital of the world as its rate is highest in the U.S., which has the highest rate in the world, and policy to change it that would produce fewer people incarcerated yet still punished and perhaps directed in ways to reduce repeat offenses. It makes the case that the high rate of imprisonment partly is a function of current policies (although some are about to be relaxed it appears) that if changed would alleviate the condition somewhat with benefits of the change to society exceeding the costs.
However, it does not stop to ponder the nexus between rates of crime and rates of imprisonment. One might think a high imprisonment rate must have a high rate of crime to supply the raw material. Think again: next to the U.S., Singapore has the highest lockup rate in the world, but one of the lowest crime rates, showing an intervening variable exists in the theory. And that is culture: one that accentuates the future-oriented values of work and thrift to keep poverty rates low rather than the present-oriented values of immediate gratification and conspicuous consumption, that features more helpful than confrontational attitudes between police and the citizenry, and promotes the idea that people need to work within societal systems with each other to try to achieve individual goals that have collective benefits. And while the argument could be made that the authoritarian history of its government encouraged this (as it does in culturally-similar Hong Kong today), it’s been two decades since Singapore transformed into a genuine democracy.
This culture is close to nonexistent in communities in Louisiana that vastly disproportionately supply prisoners. Instead, their immediate surroundings provide only examples of individuals on the straight and narrow who put forth unglamorous efforts for unremarkable rewards. Those who they deem wealthy and successful who followed the same path exist in some disembodied reality understood only through popular culture. All the others around them who appear to flash wealth without perceived difficulty in attaining it did it outside the law.
So it’s heartbreaking to read of the young boy who dreams he’ll be a rap star and his sister who fantasizes about being a model, and then of the difficulty of adults who try to guide them into the mundane world of education and achievement. You hope that these adults, who should be the role models for these kids, can get them to understand the chosen roles models are one-in-a-million who, even with great fortune, still needed hard work to become pop culture superstars. You wonder why there’s such a disconnection with these kids’ thinking to reality; why aren’t they dreaming about becoming a patrol officer, or social worker, or church worker, or even steadily employed, as are the few role models around them within the law, instead of these get-rich-and-famous-quick people they do not know personally or of those they do operate on the wrong side of the law?
That answer was above, culture, and the incentives government provides to reinforce it or disabuse them of it. Unfortunately, federal government policy for almost five decades has done a wretched job of distinguishing between the deserving and undeserving poor, subsidizing too many of those who don’t value work and thrift, and replicating those inferior attitudes across generations, all in the name of some imaginary “oppression” coming from some nonexistent bogeyman given catchy names such as “the man” (for some in these neighborhoods, more specifically “the white man”), “Wall Street,” and, the newest buzzword, “the one percent.”
Nor do the elected officials of one political party, enthralled in the false promises of liberalism, seem inclined in any way to stop reinforcing the culture of impoverishment in attitudes that lead to criminal behavior. When the president, the symbolic head of Democrats, invests his office and reelection campaign for it into the rhetoric of class warfare, where “fairness” rather than maximizing the chances for all to achieve to their abilities becomes the goal of public policy, it only signals to those in these troubled communities that the system within the law is unfair, rigged against them, and their only salvation is to entrust their fates to saviors without putting in any effort on their own for some ill-defined, distant reward, or to work on their own outside the system for riskier but more tangible, greater, and immediate benefits.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 10:05