Tuesday, December 19, 2006

When You're in a Hole

Doug Berman has an extended series of posts going on the idiotic 10-year sentence of a 17-year-old black male who had consensual oral sex from a 15-year-old girl in GA and who will now take up bedspace and resources that should be devoted to people who actually, like, hurt someone. Doug and his commenters (and links to other blogs) deliberate the (in)justice of it all, and I'll forgo my usual rant about opportunity costs beyond the comment above. I know I'm just shouting into the wind, and you can probably predict what I'd say anyway. But there remains one point to be made (maybe already made at the blogs I haven't looked at on this).

I've talked repeatedly about how the biggest crime deterrent effort we can make is to give everyone a belief that laws are just and fairly administered, a la Tom Tyler's Why People Obey the Law (reviewed last month or so). So look at this case this way: not too long ago, a middle-aged powerful white man not only walked free after being uncovered for the same behavior, he is now feted and hailed by large crowds as their hero or villain while a young, powerless black man is spending 10 years in prison for the same action. You want young black men to obey the law? When law does this? Please.

About a decade ago Gary LaFree (U-MD crim program--#1 in the nation, I taught seminars there!!!) published Losing Legitimacy, a book linking the crime increases from the 70s into the 90s with the decline in legitimacy of all US institutions, not just government, over the same period. LBJ and Nixon, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Lewinsky, Iraq, innumerable smaller scale travesties by officials at all levels, in all institutions. Exactly the same time. Before impeachment-gate, though, we had sort of cooled down ethics-challenged-wise and the polls showed growing support for all institutions again, before the s_m_n-stained dress and before pretend WMD. In other words, the decline in respect for institutions paralleled the decline in law obedience. As support rebuilt, crime went down. As respect has fallen again, crime starts going up again. Coincidence? Maybe. But that's a lot of smoke, especially when you consider again that our decrease in crime doesn't really correspond well to any of the major policy actions we've taken to combat it, in light of Canada's similar declines without doing any of those things. And Gary is one of the brightest guys you'll ever meet, now handling a major homeland security grant at U-MD. Does it really sound so silly, in light of his research and Tyler's, that having a legal system that produces such conspicuously divergent results for people of different ages, colors, and power would have the long term effect, if prevalent everywhere, of creating a law-disobeying culture?

All I'm saying is that, just because you have the power to invoke corrections sentencing, you don't have to when the payoff will be so minimal compared to the costs. The prosecutors and court did all criminal justice a major wounding with this case. The unfairness of it and all the similar injustices will reverberate and reinforce all the things that people who want an excuse to break the law and stick the system will need to justify those actions. No one was protected here. There was no victim (besides the guy in prison). A life may be irreparably damaged. And the expenditures could have gone to prevention of real crimes and victims. The state legislature changed the law because of this case, for God's sake, but its genius justices can't connect the dots. The only upsides are that we showed that black boy, by golly, and proved sodomy wrong. Now find us some stones and bring on those adulterers, divorcers, cutters of beards, and eaters of shellfish.

Too much of our corrections sentencing policy could tell the same story. Maybe the attention that Doug and others are bringing to this case will cause us to back off just a little and use a little more sense next time. It's not just an embarrassment to GA. It's an embarrassment to the entire nation. We can't afford any more of these assaults on law's legitimacy and future acceptance of our policies. This hole is too deep already. It's time to stop digging.

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