A Little More on Prisons, Incapacitation and Conservative Thought.

A little bit more for the previous post. First check out this post about conservatives and crime by Adam Serwer.

It’s important to expand on why, especially in the late 1970s and 1980s, how much the ascendant conservative approach to crime involved a large prison population.  Here’s the big quote from James Q. Wilson in the closing to his 1975 book, Thinking About Crime (my bold):

. . . some persons will shun crime even if we do nothing to deter them, while others will seek it out even if we do everything to reform them. Wicked people exist. Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people. And many people, neither wicked nor innocent, but watchful, dissembling, and calculating of their opportunities, ponder our reaction to wickedness as a cue to what they might profitably do. We have trifled with the wicked, made sport of the innocent, and encouraged the calculators. Justice suffers, and so do we all.

Go Team Social Science!  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the statement “wicked people exist” (when they were born?) and there’s nothing to be done about them other than to store them is neither rigorously thought out or proven, but it’s been the de facto approach to crime for the past 30 years.

By the way, there’s a lot of effort in preventing disorder from setting in for communities, but what is disorder?   Since it is the core of the theory, I went ahead and assumed that these conservative social scientists would have a very rigorous and well-thought out definition of what constitutes disorder that isn’t just projecting class, ethnic and sexual biases onto outside populations. From James Q. Wilson’s Varieties of Police Behavior: the Management of Law and Rrder in Eight Communities (1968):

The patrolman confronting a citizen is especially aleter to two kinds of cues: those that signal danger and those that signal impropriety. A badly dressed, rough-talking person, especially one accompanied by friends and in his own neighborhood, is quickly seen as a potential threat-he may, out of his own hot temper or because of the need to “prove himself” in front of his buddies, pull a knife or throw a punch.  A teenager hanging out on a street corner late at night, especially one dressed in an eccentric manner, a Negro wearing a “conk rag” (a piece of cloth tied around the head to hold flat hair being “processed” – that is, straightened), girls in short skirts and boys in long hair parked in a flash car talking loudly to friends on the curb, or interracial couples-all…

The patrolman believes with considerable justification that teenagers, Negros, and lower-income persons commit a disproportionate share of all reported crimes; being in those population categories at all makes one, statistically, more suspect than other persons; but to be on those categories and to behave unconventionally is to make oneself a prime suspect.

The word “and” in the last sentence is in italics in the original. It seems that behaving “unconventionally” forms a core part of the idea of disorder – but notice in the first paragraph how wearing a rag on one’s head while it is being straightened is strongly implied to being “unconventional” and thus disorderly – unconventional for whom?

Krugman asks:

[W]hat happened to the inevitable collapse of American society?

All through the 70s and 80s, and some way into the 90s, it was almost a given that all of America — or at least all of our central cities — would turn into something like the South Bronx, or worse. It was practically a cliche of popular culture; it was also a theme propounded solemnly and at great length by writers like Gertrude Himmelfarb, who insisted that only a return to traditional moral values could arrest our decline.

And then a funny thing happened. Values continued to shift: we kept on having premarital sex and getting divorces, gay and lesbian couples went out in public, relatively few Americans went to church (although a larger number claimed that they went.) Yet crime declined sharply, big cities (New York in particular) became safer than they had been in many decades, and in general society seemed to hold together.

I don’t think we really know why all that happened. But the failure of dystopia to appear on schedule is one of the remarkable good things about modern America.

This leads us to our last link, which may be my favorite. Bob Bennett, John J. DiIulio, Jr., and John P. Walters, Body Count: Moral Poverty and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs. (1996).  From a review by  Jerome Skolnick, The American Prospect, reviewing, 1997:

“America’s beleaguered cities,” the authors declare, “are about to be victimized by a paradigm shattering wave of ultraviolent, morally vacuous young people some call ‘the superpredators.'” They write: “A new generation of street criminals is upon us—the youngest, biggest, and baddest generation any society has ever known.” And they predict that the next generation will be even more predatory, with juvenile crime peaking in 2010….

Consider carefully the claims that the authors of Body Count make about prisons. “Virtually all convicted criminals who go to prison,” they write, “are violent offenders, repeat offenders, or repeat violent offenders.” “It is simply a myth,” they continue, “that our prison cells are filled with people who don’t belong there, or that we would somehow be safer if fewer people were in prison. The widespread circulation of that myth is the result of ideology masquerading as analysis.”

“Moral poverty,” by contrast, ignores such factors as racism, joblessness, inequality, and poverty and zeroes in only on “the near complete collapse of our character-forming institutions . . . in a free society, families, schools, and churches.” Consequently, the bonds of family must be “restored.” How do we achieve this restoration? “We believe,” the authors write, “the most obvious answer—and perhaps the only reliable answer—is a widespread renewal of religious faith and the strengthening of religious institutions.”

Here’s a solid prediction from the mid-1990s: If we don’t have a widespread renewal of religious faith then crime committed by “superpredators” would dominate, peaking in 2010. Looking out my window, I see falling crime statistics for a long time now and no roving gang of “pre-social” (their word!) superpredators.

For one explanation on what actually happened during that time period, check out this by Bruce Western.

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12 Responses to A Little More on Prisons, Incapacitation and Conservative Thought.

  1. Pingback: The Conservative World View and Prison Populations, Broken Windows. « Rortybomb

  2. my number one complaint with conservatism is it works best for those who are already entriched. However, some of those entriched really did work their butts off to get that position. It’s just that eventually, there is just not enough resources, volume of work or alternative methods that would enable others to achieve the same level of success.

  3. grooft says:

    Crime dropped. Take a look at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080527201839.htm the link between blood levels and crime.

    Regulation is good.

  4. Pingback: Links Christmas Day « naked capitalism

  5. dilbert dogbert says:

    They write: “A new generation of Wall Street criminals is upon us—the youngest, biggest, and baddest generation any society has ever known.” And they predict that the next generation will be even more predatory, with Wall Street crime peaking in 2012….

    Fixed that.

  6. bmeisen says:

    I am not surprised by the evidence that high prison populations are part of the conservative agenda. I am surprised that the right continues to get traction with the Get Tough on Crime line. The evidence that it does not work is overwhelming.

    Which leading democracies has the highest rate of incarceration, the most murders, spends the most – both per capita and absolute – on fighting crime? The USA. I am writing from Germany where recently a homosexual cannibal was sentenced to doable time after being found guilty of killing and eating a victim whom he had met on the internet. Frankly I think the court ruled wisely. Crime is very low on our list of daily worries.

    Furthermore, whose decades old War on Drugs has produced a vibrant domestic market in ilicit drugs, drugs that are supplied for example by criminal social networks based in Mexico. Their drug export business is so profitable that these networks are killing themselves off in a war to control it.

    I would also be surprised if Wilson ever read Foucault.

  7. Jack Straw says:

    Part of it is demographics. 16 – 25 year old males, IIRC correctly, was the key cohort. “Live-ability” crime closely tracked how large that group was, and when that group started shrinking, so did the perception of crime (as well as the statistics).

    That said, “crime” is a good lifetime arc issue for me. When I really started paying attention to politics (mid-80s), “crime” was easily the issue that got people most worked up and translated in GOTV. As an occasional defense attorney, 15 years later, I will tell you, everybody is a Warren-ite now (except for the judges and prosecutors, regrettably).

    This post raises a ton of interesting issues which I would like to comment about, but it being Christmas, I will limit what I say for the time-being to John Walters: may you soon have your Christmas in Hell, sir, for you have done more damage than you could ever conceive. I was told once by a close source that Allan Bloom semi-publically fretted (amongst his favored progeny) who would be his “Alcibiades.” I would nominate Mr. Walters, despite many others who, based upon their public records, appear to have actually sought this distinction.

    Last point for now, the JQW/Walters/Bennett/Siber axis, IMO, were supremely impressed with the Soviets’ ability to pacify internal “struggle,” and tried to duplicate it here. New York is the shining example.

  8. Bruce Wilder says:

    As dilbert dogbert indicated:

    The Superpredators arrived on schedule; they work for banks.

  9. AR says:

    dilbert dogbert said it right. I see the connection too.

    Loic Wacquant’s ‘From Slavery to Mass Incarceration, the Role of Prisons in American Society’* would be worth reading for the racial aspect of the conservative approach to prisons/crime.

    Foreclosure fraud is creating a huge number of new homeless. The term ‘deadbeat borrowers’ is too close to ‘welfare queens’ for my taste.

    The land title system has been destroyed and banks are taking homes ‘by mistake.’ How do they do that without the courts’ permission? Where will all of these new homeless, many unemployed, be housed? Why would Wall Street want to take all of the land and destroy the middle class?

    * http://newleftreview.org/?view=2367

    • Michael Warhurst says:

      Why would Wall Street want to destroy the middle class?
      Because the uber wealthy only know that they have sucked up all the money they can is when there are only two classes of people – rich and poor.
      Morality has three positions. Moral – when one knows what it is and one does it; Immoral – when one knows what it is and doesn’t do it; and Amoral – when one never considers morality in the first place!
      There can be no better operating definition of Amoral than one for whom dollars are the only value considered before action – which defines Wall Street, corporate America, wealthy elites and their political operatives. These groups are all morals as long as the morals do not interfere with greed.
      Morality is comprised of human and social values – none of the benefits of which can ever be expressed in terms of dollars (although most of the “costs” in terms of lower profits for business can be expressed in dollars). Human and social values can never be described in terms of dollars therefore decisions/actions based on dollar values can never consider or express morality.
      It is Wall Street that is “deadbeat” and it is Wall Street and bankers that have created the human disaster which is now unfolding.
      Democratic Government, on the other hand is elected by the majority of voters to represent their human and social values. Democratic Government has the ability to be moral and has the power to force the amoral business forces to be moral. For this reason business/Wall Street interests hate Democratic Government and does everything possible to corrupt, diminish, and destroy Democratic Government.
      Capitalism is when the individual takes the risk and gets the reward; Socialism is when the government takes the risk and gets the reward; Fascism is when the government takes the risk and individuals get the rewards.
      Fascism, as in Hitler’s Germany, was supported completely by the wealthy business interests and all business losses were guaranteed by Hitler’s government. It was and remains all about money with human and social values at zero.
      Republic was invented by Plato to be the diametrically opposite of democracy. Republic is run by wealthy elites while democracy is run by the majority of citizen’s votes. It is impossible to have a democratic republic – this is an oxymoron and totally impossible.You either have a republic run by wealthy elites or you can have a democracy controlled by the majority of citizens – but it is impossible to have a government controlled by wealthy elites and the majority of voters at the same time. It’s either one or the other!

  10. Beevis says:

    “I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the statement “wicked people exist” (when they were born?) and there’s nothing to be done about them other than to store them is neither rigorously thought out or proven, but it’s been the de facto approach to crime for the past 30 years.”

    So you think that there are NO people who are just beyond redemption? I’m not so sure. Maybe a “road to Damascus” thing might bring some of them around but I definitely believe that there are wicked people out there for whom the only cure is to be locked up. As a liberal I’m tired of trying to defend criminals in arguments just for the sake of what? Guilt? It’s a losing argument and one that just doesn’t make sense.

  11. Pingback: Prison Populations, Crime and “Present Orientedness” « Rortybomb

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