Among the Intellectualoids

Jailhouse Crock

News Flash: Prisons are full of violent criminals.

By 6.2.11

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Here's something you don't read everyday: "Putting People in Jail Does Not Lower the Crime Rate." Unless you are a subscriber to The Nation or a visitor to the MSNBC website. Then you probably do read that every day, or something equally counterintuitive.

I confess I do visit the MSNBC website most days. Where else am I going to get story ideas and a good laugh at the same time?

The other day I clicked on a segment with Tulane Professor Melissa Harris-Perry, a self-styled expert on crime and punishment. I was curious why we were putting ordinary people in jail in hopes of lowering the crime rate. Seemed a tad extreme to me.

Turned out the segment was really about putting convicted criminals in jail. So maybe the headline should have read "Putting Criminals in Jail Does Not Lower the Crime Rate." That certainly sounds more like something a college professor would say.

Asked about the recent 5.5 percent drop in violent crime nationally, Dr. Harris-Perry said it had nothing to do with the large numbers of violent offenders behind bars. Rather, she said, our state prisons are swollen with nonviolent criminals convicted mostly for drug crimes and petty thefts, like shoplifting Slim Jims from the Quicky Mart, I guess.

One can hardly blame the former University of Chicago and Princeton University professor for failing to research the topic. Her teaching assistant was probably studying for finals that week. I did research the topic, however, and it turns out that, according to a 2009 Department of Justice report, more than half (52.4 percent) of criminals in state prisons were imprisoned for violent crimes.

I also stumbled across another interesting statistic from the DOJ: "From 2000 to 2008, the state prison population increased by 159,200 prisoners, and violent offenders accounted for 60 percent of this increase. The number of drug offenders in state prisons declined by 12,400 over this period." Note to Tulane students: if you want to pass Dr. Harris-Perry's class "Women in Politics, Media, and the Contemporary United States," forget you read this.

ONE WONDERS WHERE Harris-Perry thinks violent criminals come from? Any beat cop will tell you hardened felons commit long strings of bush league thuggeries before being promoted to the majors. Clyde Barrow (of Bonnie and Clyde fame) did not spring a gangster fully formed from his mother's womb. As a likely lad of 16, he was stealing turkeys and automobiles, then moved on to safecracking, and, finally, to bank robbery and homicide. The plain fact is if you are behind bars for pilfering turkeys, you are not on the streets committing carjackery. Thus the violent crime rate falls. It's amazing how that works.

In her never-ending crusade against common sense, Dr. Harris-Perry goes on to suggest that locking up nonviolent criminals is bad for communities.

Here I must enthusiastically agree. Locking up criminals can be economically ruinous for a large segment of society. For starters, it's terrible for home security system salesmen, close circuit TV camera installers, pit-bull breeders, auto glass repairmen, police officers, security guards, crime reporters and emergency room personnel. All risk being laid off. And think of the poor hipsters and artists who may no longer afford their cheap art galleries, record stores, head shops and every other kind of unsustainable business if crime rates went down and the middle class began moving back into the cities.

Sadly Harris-Perry is not talking about car alarm installers. She believes locking up criminals is bad for those who live in high-crime neighborhoods. How so? Because ex-cons have a harder time finding work and housing, so they naturally return to a life of crime and, ultimately, are sent back to jail (a situation she and author Michelle Alexander call "the new Jim Crow" and people who do not teach at Tulane call "criminal justice"). How much do you want to bet Dr. Harris-Perry doesn't live in a high-crime neighborhood? I do live in a high-crime neighborhood and I can emphatically say that locking up criminals does nothing to lower my quality of life.

Last, she would like to see fewer incarcerations of nonviolent criminals and more taxpayer money spent on rehabilitation. This is easily done. All we have to do is ignore 35 years of data that shows rehabilitation doesn't work.

I suppose I should give up the idea of teaching at a prestigious university. Not because I lack a Ph.D. in Queer Theory or Feminist Bible Interpretation, but because I still have some respect for truth, logic and common sense.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.