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Criminal Injustice -- Inside America's National Disgrace
The libertarian Reason Magazine ("free minds and free markets") has devoted its July issue to "Criminal Injustice -- Inside America's National Disgrace"). Wrongful convictions, the immigration detention system, rogue prosecutors, the wastefulness of long prison terms and the peril of vague criminal statutes are just a few of the topics addressed.

In one particularly interesting column, "The Crime Rate Puzzle," Radley Balko (recently hired away from Reason by the Huffington Post) examines what academics think about the causes for the much-touted drop in crime of recent years. "Did incarceration reduce the crime rate, or did it get in the way?"

Sam Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska and one of the top scholars of policing, tells Balko:

Conservatives say the crime drop was because of incarceration. Liberals say it was programs like community policing. I don't think there's much convincing evidence for either."

Academic consensus, according to Balko, exists for just two factors: the ebbing of the crack trade after its peak in the late 1980s, and the growth in the economy since 1992. In this understanding, part of the drop in crime is due to the previous rise having been an aberration -- the new drug crack, shorter acting and marketed in poor neighborhoods, brought in a larger number of transactions each day and new fighting over turf. When the trade restabilized and the use of crack diminished, violence went back down to more normal levels. And over the longer term, a big part of the drop in crime is the growth of the economy, leading to lower unemployment, more jobs in the licit economy, less desperation, etc. "[I]t seems that as we live better... we live better," writes Balko.

Balko's willingness to question whether imprisoning more people has really reduced crime is especially important in light of the willingness of some academics to oversimplify that very question. In a generally insightful column published last month, sociologist James Q. Wilson was willing to question how much of the drop in crime was accounted for by the increased in incarceration, and even whether some types of incarceration really do address violence, low-level drug dealers in particular. But overall it is as simple to Wilson as to say "when prisoners are kept off the street, they can attack only one another, not you or your family."

Of course it's not that simple. The prisoner kept off the street may have a younger brother who becomes embittered by his sibling's absence, and is driven to crime for that reason. The money spent to incarcerate that person might instead have funded an after-school program serving dozens of at-risk youths, possibly preventing a number of criminal careers from ever beginning. Ultimately such questions can only be answered by research. Wilson's willingness to entirely omit such questions from his discussion makes it less likely to shed light on that particular point, and it ignores research calling the assumption into question. As Balko cites:

In a series of studies published in 2009, the University of Missouri-St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld and the SUNY-Albany sociologist Steven Messner found that during the last 15 years, states with lower incarceration rates saw bigger drops in crime, on average, than those with lock-'em-up policies. Moreover, the historic increase in the prison population began in the early 1980S, a decade after the crime rate began to rise and a decade before it started to fall. The incarceration rate increased by more than 100 percent in the 1980s, but violent crime still increased that decade, by 22 percent.

Also omitted by most authors, but not Balko, is the prohibition issue. "[W]ere it not for drug prohibition, we could well be living in the safest era in American history." A good reason not to be complacent about the state of crime and the criminal justice system in America today.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
Looking for the easiest way to join the anti-drug war movement? You've found it!

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Scott, hope you don't mind me posting this email from DPA:


Two days from now marks the 40th anniversary of Nixon's declaration of the war on drugs – a war that's destroyed countless lives and cost the American public more than $1 trillion.

We're fed up with these disastrous policies – Congress MUST finally end this shockingly wasteful, counterproductive war. To make sure they get the message, we've designed a trillion dollar bill to symbolize this staggering waste of money.

On Friday, we will hand deliver a trillion dollar bill to each member of Congress and we want to include at least 25,000 letters of support. Please sign our letter now to make sure your name is included!

We need your help to flood Congress with demands to end the war on drugs – and we need it now, during this anniversary week. So please write your representative right away, then forward this message to friends and family, and make sure to spread the word on Facebook and Twitter!

Tonight, more than 500,000 people across America will have to sleep behind bars for violating a nonviolent drug offense. That's more than all of western Europe locks up for ALL offenses. This national disgrace is a fiscal and moral nightmare for all of us who care about freedom, responsibility and accountable government. Think about this: locking up one inmate costs about $30,000 per year – more than twice the average cost for annual tuition, including room and board, at an American public college.

Write your representative today and tell them you're sick of spending over $51 billion every year on drug policies that don't work! Then forward this message to your friends and family, and spread the word on Facebook and Twitter!

If Congress is going to cut budgets, let's make sure the drug war budget is first on the chopping block. That's why we're sending Congress these $1 trillion bills – and that's why we need you to tell your representative that you want drug policies grounded in science, compassion and human rights – not drug war ideology. If we reach 25,000 letters to Congress, Drug Policy Alliance staff will hand deliver your letter to your representative on Capitol Hill on June 17th!

We need to flood the halls of Congress in the next two days! Please forward this message to your friends, and spread the word on Facebook and Twitter today.

Thank you again for all your help.


Ethan Nadelmann
Executive Director
Drug Policy Alliance

borden's picture

I actually wrote this blog

I actually wrote this blog post, Moonrider, not Scott. :) Scott is our best blogger, though.

Guess I should have paid more attention

Sorry about that, David.

borden's picture

I take it as a compliment to

I take it as a compliment to be confused with Scott.  :)

A Real Reason for Drug Laws.....

First let me state that many "so called laws" are in fact not laws at all. I wish with all my heart and soul that the illegal drug laws be permanently purged from ours and other countries law dockets.

Reason being is not just to "legalize drugs", which in itself is a good beginning towards freedom, but to also stop the beginnings of our embryonic police state / corporate prison slave state, which is growing towards full maturity before our very eyes.

Drug laws equal Power and Money period. 95% of Americans population will never benefit from drug laws.

It is the 5% at the top of the wealth pyramid that will benefit from drug laws and the perpetuation of those laws. Reason being is that when drug laws are written and enforced even with the consent of majority congress along with the full knowledge of these laws being unconstitutional because it circumvents and operates outside the framework of the constitution, as any law maker worth his or her salt knows full well.

The real reason for these laws is two fold. One is to enhance development of a global police state. Two is to give rise to a global corporate prison slave labor force.

The first is a given and simple inductive reasoning, which has been pounded into our heads for many decades now. However the second reason, which I will add here is a direct result of Richard (Tricky Dick) Nixon's love affaire with China and it's prison slave labor system which has given rise to the likes of GEO, formally known as Wackenhut the corporate for profit prison system, which sprang up around about the same time as old Tricky. One has to stand back and look at who profits from drug laws.

When you incarcerate 2.6 million people and work them involuntarily under sweatshop conditions at 13 cents and hour, well that reader, is slave labor! Labor to make whatever you as the prison owner can sell or are asked to make for another corporation.

Another unspoken side of this crooked coin is that once convicted of a so called "drug crime" many dissidents and other outspoken citizens can be easily dispatched once inside prison (think Malosavitch) who was poisoned in jail while awaiting trial in the Hague.

The war on drugs is really a war on you for money and power. A real shining example of Capitalism at its best.   

Crime trends track the

Crime trends track the economy as it affects the disadvantaged. They track very closely, but only where the general welfare is concerned. Overlay the curves and except for a varying lag time they look nearly identical. Additionally, if the economy loses a certain percentage of it's gross value (again, that value varies, but maintains a steady range), the crime trends universally begin a rise. The era of the Great Depression is also the era of serial bank robberies, the gin runner and the big city gangster. There is no coincidence involved. The Eighties was the era of the Bush recession, as well as the  crack "epidemic" and the street gang-banger. Here we are, Great Depression II, and the stage was set, the players took their place and the curtain went up.

Lesson? It's the money, honey.

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