- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2008

For more than two centuries, the political left has been preoccupied with the fate of criminals, often while ignoring or downplaying the fate of the victims of those criminals.

So it is hardly surprising that a recent New York Times editorial returned to a familiar theme on the left, on both sides of the Atlantic, with its lament that “incarceration rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen.”

Back in 1997, New York Times writer Fox Butterfield expressed the same lament under the headline, “Crime keeps on falling, but prisons keep on filling.” Then, as now, liberals seemed to find it puzzling that crime rates go down when more criminals are put behind bars.

Nor is it surprising that the left uses an old and irrelevant comparison — between the cost of keeping a criminal behind bars versus the cost of higher education. According to the Times, “Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Michigan, and Oregon devote as much or more to corrections as they do to higher education.”

The relevant comparison would be between the cost of keeping a criminal behind bars and the cost of letting him loose in society. But neither the New York Times nor others on the left show any interest in that comparison.

In Britain, the total cost of the prison system per year was found to be 1.9 billion pounds sterling (more than $3.8 billion), while the financial cost alone of the crimes committed per year by criminals was estimated at 60 billion pounds sterling.

The big difference between the two kinds of costs is not just in their amounts. The cost of locking up criminals must be paid out of government budgets that politicians would prefer to spend on giveaway programs likelier to get them re-elected. But the far higher costs of letting criminals loose is paid by the general public in both money and in being subjected to violence.

The net result is that both politicians and ideologues of the left are forever pushing “alternatives to incarceration.” These include programs with lovely names like “community supervision” and high-tech stuff like electronic devices to keep track of released criminals’ locations.

Just how do you “supervise” a criminal who is turned loose in the community? Assigning someone to be with him, one-on-one and 24 hours, seven days a week, would probably be a lot more expensive than locking him up.

But of course no one proposes any such thing. Having the released criminal reporting to some official from time to time may be enough to allow use of the soothing word “supervision.” But it hardly restricts what a criminal does with the other nine-tenths of his time when he is not reporting.

Electronic devices work only when used. Even when they are used 24/7, they tell you only where the criminal is, not what he is doing. Those released criminals who don’t even want that much restriction can of course remove the device and become an escapee, with far less trouble or risk than required to escape from prison.

One of the most insidious aspects of “alternatives to incarceration” programs is that those who control such programs also often control the statistical and other information that would be needed to assess the programs’ actual consequences. They not only control what information is released but to whom it will be released.

When officials whose careers are on the line can choose between researchers who view incarceration as “mean-spirited” toward criminals and others who are much less sympathetic to criminals, who do you think will get access to the data?

A study of the treatment of criminals in Britain — “A Land Fit for Criminals” by David Fraser — has several chapters on the games played with statistics to make “alternatives to incarceration” programs look successful even when they are failing abysmally, with tragic results for the public.

Britain has gone much further down the road that the New York Times urges us to follow. In the process, Britain has gone from being one of the most law-abiding nations on Earth to overtaking the United States in most categories of crime.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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