The Caging of America

By Adam Gopnik, in the Jan 30 2012 edition of the New Yorker.

Describes one of the United States’ current great crimes– that we have so many of our citizens in jail.

He opens with a reminder of the enveloping fog of “attenuated panic, of watchful paranoia—anxiety and boredom and fear mixed” which characterizes jail life. Time becomes something which is done to you.

Mass incarceration today is as pervasive as slavery was in 1850, with more blacks currently in the grips of the criminal “justice” system than there were enslaved (I wonder if the figure is in absolute numbers or relative?), and more than were held in Stalin’s Gulag Achipelago. “Lockdown City” is the second largest in the States.

The rate of incarceration is accelerating. In 1980, it was 220/100,000 (0.2%). In 2010, it was 731/100,000 (0.7%). The money spent on prisons has increased at 6x the rate spent on higher education.

Prison rape has become expected and accepted, reminiscent of 18th century japery of men struggling on the gallows.

Why? How did we get this way? The Norther arguement claims it is BECAUSE of the bill of rights, which encodes proceedures but not principles.

accused criminals get laboriously articulated protection against procedural errors and no protection at all against outrageous and obvious violations of simple justice. You can get off if the cops looked in the wrong car with the wrong warrant when they found your joint, but you have no recourse if owning the joint gets you locked up for life.

it would be better if

The criminal law should once again be more like the common law, with judges and juries not merely finding fact but making law on the basis of universal principles of fairness, circumstance, and seriousness, and crafting penalties to the exigencies of the crime.

Northern argument espoused by William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School, author of Collapse of American Criminal Justice” 2011.

the Southern argument claims it is racism.

Society has seen a massive drop (40%) in violent crime rates over the last 30 years, with no clear explination. Franklin E. Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe,” reports. But the additional drop in NYC seems to have come from the N.Y.P.D. not by fighting minor crimes in safe places but by putting lots of cops in places where lots of crimes happened—“hot-spot policing.”

criminal activity seems like most other human choices—a question of contingent occasions and opportunity. Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals; criminals are the consequence of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes.

Thus the key to stopping crime is

Conservatives don’t like this view because it shows that being tough doesn’t help; liberals don’t like it because apparently being nice doesn’t help, either. Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.


one piece of radical common sense: since prison plays at best a small role in stopping even violent crime, very few people, rich or poor, should be in prison for a nonviolent crime.


Posted on February 27, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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