Gov. Kathy Hochul delivered one of the most memorable lines of the midterm debates when she said she “didn’t know why” her Republican opponent, Rep. Lee Zeldin, cared so much about locking up criminals.
Hochul’s highhandedness encapsulated an attitude toward crime and punishment that has been shaped by the decarceration movement.
Progressives have accepted a wholesale critique of the criminal-justice system that is deeply flawed, not to say a complete fantasy. Its premises are false, and its effects are destructive; at the same time it has made — for the second national election in a row — Democrats vulnerable to a Republican fusillade on crime.
If the 2022 midterms can drive a stake through the decarceration movement, which gained intellectual ground during the Obama years and seemed set to sweep all before it in the immediate aftermath of the death of George Floyd, they will have done a favor to the country — and, incidentally, the Democratic Party.
A key erroneous contention of this critique is that the United States spent decades arbitrarily locking up millions of people to make itself a deeply unjust carceral state. In reality, as criminologist Barry Latzer points out in his book “The Myth of Overpunishment,” America experienced a massive crime wave beginning a half-century ago that naturally resulted in more imprisonments. From 1960 to 1990, violent-crime arrests increased more than 400% and prison commitments more than 270%.
Another myth is that prisons are full of small-time or nonviolent offenders. According to Latzer, more than half of inmates in state prisons have committed violent crimes such as murder, rape or assault. Another 16% have committed significant property crimes, including felony theft and burglary.
How about drug crimes? They account for 14% of imprisonments, and fewer than 4% are for possession (and those offenders may well be guilty of other crimes).
It’s not true that an overly punitive America is always throwing away the key. In his book “Criminal (In)justice,” Rafael Mangual of the Manhattan Institute points out that state prisoners serve a median sentence of roughly 15 months and violent offenders less than 2½ years.
It’s not as though, by the way, we are catching every criminal and nailing him to the wall. About half of murderers are arrested and imprisoned, Latzer writes, while only about 6% of other violent offenders are brought to justice.
A tiny percentage of the population, something like 5%, is responsible for about 50% of crime. According to Latzer, 400,000 state prisoners released in 2005 had been arrested 4.3 million times prior to their incarceration, and 83% of them got rearrested within 9 years of being released.
As the headlines from around the country about monsters with long rap sheets committing terrible crimes emphasize, we should be seeking to put such dangerous people out of commission. And we aren’t doing it with requisite seriousness.
Even prior to the tumult of 2020, over the prior decade we had combined deincarceration (with the prison population declining by 17%) and depolicing (with 25% fewer arrests).
Robust policing is, of course, an indispensable part of maintaining order. Mangual writes that the simple proposition that “more policing means less crime” is “one of the most consistent and robust findings in the criminological literature.”
Maybe Democrats will begin to acknowledge this and sue for a formal divorce from the decarceration movement.
Democrats wouldn’t have to try to deny their true views, minimize the epidemic of violent crime or — like Hochul — express bemused contempt for a tough-on-crime position if they simply acknowledged that we need more cops arresting more criminals, and these offenders should be put behind bars more reliably and for longer sentences.
If the party didn’t get this after the 2020 election, maybe there is, to paraphrase the folk expression, education in the second kick of the mule.