Crime and Punishment: Perception vs. Reality

(The author was an inmate at the California Institute for Men at Chino in 2004. This is the second in a series about the prison system.)

When LA Police Chief Bill Bratton recently announced his resignation, he trumpeted the fact that LA hadn't seen such a low crime rate since the 50s. Really? You would never know it from watching your local Action News.

In the last 20 years, just as demographic trends have kicked in that probably explain most of the drop in crime, the local news culture of "if it bleeds it leads" has burgeoned. In any large media market, you could easily get the impression that crime has skyrocketed rather than gone down. Helicopter-filmed car chases will go on for an hour at a time, until we finally get a glimpse of the crazed meth-head as he jumps into traffic and police subdue him. The robbery of every 7/ll clerk is caught on tape, run over and over if there's a pistol-whipping. John Q. Public would doubtfully concur that his neighborhood is more Ozzie and Harriet than Beyond Thunderdome, even if the only crime he has personally been the victim of in the last decade is a stolen gym bag.

Ask people what they think the chances are that they will be hurt in a terrorist attack or get carjacked and they will give you massively inflated odds. This is the way the modern mind works. We are somehow convinced something we see on TV is more likely to happen to us. The irrational result is that the same person smoking 2 packs a day will be less panicked by the prospect of a fairly likely lung cancer than of catching a swine flu that has sickened 10 people 3 states away.

Unfortunately, this distorted perception of personal risk to oneself and one's family has pernicious effects when it comes to the criminal justice system. No politician dares being branded "soft on crime," even though the emphasis on locking people up places a prodigious burden on state budgets. Prison builders and guard unions create powerful interest groups that guarantee their own perpetuity with hefty campaign contributions. Any sort of meaningful program that might actually help an inmate make it on the outside is gutted as prisoner "coddling," assuring high recidivism. It's the embodiment of a vicious cycle.

No matter how many DNA tests exonerate innocent men, the popular perception remains that for every miscarriage of justice, there are far more instances of criminals getting off on "technicalities." This may make for good TV, but in real life, quite the opposite is true. The overwhelming majority of those facing a judge must make do with a free public defender who tries to get him the best plea bargain possible on the basis of a quick pow-wow in the hallway before the case is called. Try to find a technicality with that level of preparation.

To avoid the possibility of losing a case, the D.A. will routinely threaten a defendant with a maximum sentence if the case goes to trial and he is found guilty. Unable to afford a good lawyer, even the innocent will usually take a plea. Better 5 years than 25, better 25 than the death penalty.

The D.A.'s priority is not justice, it's a high conviction rate to run for office on. If the evidence is weak, the prosecutor will often dredge up an additional charge. The one I kept hearing about in prison was "making terrorist threats" and not once did the inciting incident have anything to do with terrorism. It might be levied because someone called his girlfriend "a bitch" in an argument, or left an angry message on an answering machine. One result of this prosecutorial zeal is that many inmates are misclassified as having committed a violent crime because they were forced to agree to it as part of a plea bargain. (For example, if you threatened a bank teller with a finger under your shirt, you'd have to state it was a gun.)

Trust me, I don't dispute there are many dangerous criminals in prison who belong there -- I met some of them. But I contend they loom much larger in politics and policymaking than their numbers justify. Those voting out of fear, or a desire to punish, are perpetuating the very situations they dread. The more time men spend in prison, the more it costs the taxpayer, stealing money from the very kind of programs that would obviate prison in the first place, or at least greatly lower the rate of recidivism.

It's unfortunate this is perceived as a liberal/conservative issue. Stressing education, drug treatment, and job placement isn't about "coddling" criminals, it's about expanding the tax base and reducing the very poverty that causes the vast majority of crime in the first place. Meanwhile, letting offenders out before the end of their sentences is a perfectly sane budgetary remedy, particularly if it keeps us from laying off teachers. Every dollar spent in the classroom is a dollar that won't have to be spent on a prison cell.