Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Danger in Abandoning the Tough Sentencing Model

Wisconsin State Senator Lena Taylor’s suggestion in a recent press release, that Wisconsin abandon its "lock ‘em up" attitude has got to be music to the ears of criminals. She and State Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch would have these thugs live among us instead of rightly being separated from law-abiding society. The lie that will be advanced is that many of those currently in prison are non-violent, are there for lesser offenses, or are substance abusers in need of treatment. The truth, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, is that over half of those currently in prison are there for violent crimes and many are repeat offenders and habitual felons. Those locked up for drugs are mainly dealers belonging to notorious street gangs. This population is not in need of treatment, they’re in need of punishment. It’s foolhardy to believe that group hugs will be effective with this group of miscreants. The other myth perpetrated by these advocates is that corrections expenditures exceed spending on education. Wrong again. Nationally, between 1995 and 2007, spending for education almost doubled, while corrections spending was lower.

This attitude is nothing new. Lower crime rates are always seen by soft-on-crime advocates as an opportunity to experiment with shorter sentences and rehabilitation. This only leads to rising crime rates, as evidenced by history and empirical evidence. When the soft-on-crime advocates had their way with legislators back in the‘60s, it led to massive increases in crime in the ‘80s; most notably violent crime in America’s urban communities. Liberal policies like these not only fail, but they have a devastating effect in urban neighborhoods where blacks and other minorities reside. Locking away violent and recidivist offenders does work. It gives women, children and families a temporary respite from being preyed upon by drug dealers, gang members and those who use firearms and intimidation to impose their will and to hold entire neighborhoods hostage. Locking them away can, and is, an immediate remedy. Besides, they already benefit form a lenient judiciary.

There is no one approach that will solve the dilemma of crime. Among all the strategies that people may want to try, incarceration will never be replaced. It will always be one piece of the puzzle. This is very unsettling to the Left, but it is a fact of life. Society should always be willing to try programs that have merit based on empirical research and evidence, not those that are only well-intentioned. If it is determined that a program doesn’t work, it should be trashed, not repackaged with additional spending.

Senator Taylor’s assertion that corrections spending is bankrupting Wisconsin is true, but her reasoning is faulty. Wisconsin’s expenditure on corrections is high because it is inefficiently run. Employee costs are the culprit. The benefit ratio alone of operating prisons with state employees makes it cost prohibitive. Healthcare costs, pensions and benefits (like the scheme that was uncovered this past summer, where some state employees reached six-figure salaries by abusing sick leave and increasing overtime) are what make corrections so costly in Wisconsin.

My suggestion is for the state legislature to enact real reform by repealing the prohibition on operating private prisons in Wisconsin. Some out-of-the-box thinking is in order. Turning all or part of corrections over to be privately run will not only reduce the cost but the size of state government. Public sector labor organizations will scream, but is this about them or the taxpayers? Government never does anything more efficiently and effectively than the private sector. It’s why people rely on FedEx and UPS instead of the U.S. Postal Service to have a package delivered.

I’m a career cop, not an economist and I don’t advocate for any particular approach to fixing the economy, but the stimulus proposal being offered in Washington D.C. believes that massive public works projects to rebuild America’s infrastructure, including roads and schools, are the way to stimulate the economy. This leaves out another important part of America’s infrastructure that people rely on and that are in need of rebuilding--local jails and prisons.
This approach will put many of Wisconsin’s unemployed back to work building and repairing prisons and jails in a two- to four-year project. The construction industry has been one of the hardest hit and is being targeted for revitalization. Once completed, these projects must end, according to John Maynard Keynes, the author of this economic theory. My concern is that government projects are usually behind schedule and over budget. By that time the economy will hopefully improve enough for those working on public projects to then find work in the private sector. Turning over Wisconsin’s prisons to be run privately will increase the state’s private sector hiring as well.

I realize that improving public safety by use of jails and prisons are not part of the liberal agenda but to not include them as part of America’s infrastructure along with roads, transportation projects and schools is for government to abdicate its most elementary responsibility, which is to secure the personal safety of its citizens.

David A. Clarke Jr., Sheriff
Milwaukee County

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