The Get-Tough- On-Crime Bug is Making Us Sick

Human Rights

Doctors recommend people get the flu shot this time of year. And I recommend folks get inoculated for the get-tough-on-crime bug before the campaign season gets in full swing.

The highly contagious mental malady prevents people from thinking clearly about crime and punishment. It's how we get legislation like the "Aid Elimination Penalty" provision in the Higher Education Act (HEA) that bars students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for college; apparently, to teach them a lesson.

By "them," in this case, we're talking about disproportionately disadvantaged students. Rich, stoner kids don't need financial aid.

The push to repeal the provision from the HEA was dropped in Congress two weeks ago, despite the efforts of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, though they did get one small victory in getting the law amended so that the AEP applies only to offenses committed while a student is getting financial aid.

Still, an estimated 200,000 students have been denied financial aid because of AEP, as Congress moves toward reauthorizing the bill, AEP and all.

It's just one of the many strains of the get-tough-on-crime virus that attacks the popular political mind, re-defining "justice" as an institutionalized form of making sure "those" people get what they "deserve."

In his 1966 study of the American penal system, Dr. Karl Menninger discerned a diagnosis, offering two simple observations that exposes the get-tough-on-crime approach for what it is: an irrelevant distraction in dealing with the "crime problem."

First, Menninger observed, most criminals are never caught, meaning: convicted criminals -- the people in prison -- are only the minority of law-breakers foolish enough, brazen enough, poor enough or unlucky enough to get caught.

And, of the minority of offenders who are behind bars, not even all of them are guilty, as we are reminded with alarming frequency by periodic news reports of yet another wrongly convicted inmate later exonerated by DNA evidence. It was true in 1966 when Menninger wrote The Crime of Punishment and it's true today.

According to the most recent figures I could find -- the FBI's 2002 Crime Index Offenses Cleared data -- law enforcement agencies, nationwide, had a 20 percent clearance rate for all crimes.

For violent crimes, the clearance rate was 46.8 percent (for murder it was 64.0 percent; aggravated assault, 56.5 percent; forcible rape, 44.5 percent; and robbery, 25.7 percent) -- compared to 16.5 percent for property crimes, excluding arson.

Given the official numbers, we can see that a symptom of the get-tough-on-crime bug is the idea that "the crime problem" will be significantly impacted by meting out punitive justice to the minority of criminals who are actually caught.

Secondly, and more importantly, Menninger reminds us, most convicted criminals will eventually be released. If we remove law-breakers from society to merely punish and humiliate them for their crimes because they "deserve it," and then release them as economic and political pariahs, by doing stuff like denying drug offenders financial aid for college, the only thing we've done is warehouse workers in labor camps that double as crime universities where penitentiary professors teach their pupils the tricks-of-the-trade.

Arguing about whether the criminal justice system should be about retribution or rehabilitation is besides the point. Because it won't change the reality that if you put people with problems in a place that makes them worse-off and then turn them loose on society without any resources, the only thing you've done is exponentially increase the chances of that person becoming a repeat offender, guaranteeing many more future victims.

Menninger's medicine goes right to the heart of the get-tough-on-crime rationalization: "'Doesn't anybody care about the victims?' cry some demagogues, with melodramatic flourishes. 'Why should all this attention be given to the criminals and none to those they have beaten or robbed?'"

"This childish outcry has an appeal for the unthinking. Of course no victim should be neglected. But the individual victim has no more right to be protected than those of us who may become victims. We all want to be better protected. And we are not being protected by a system that attacks 'criminals' as if they were the embodiment of evil."

Until the "crime problem" is diagnosed and treated as a "social safety problem," like Menninger suggested, we'll keep having these get-tough-on-crime policies creating more future victims. Inoculate yourself.

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