Saturday, August 27, 2005

Saturday Morning with Uncle Ben: Liberals are Soft on Crime

Neither Ben nor I were able to make it to our usual friday afternoon appointment, so I don't have new pearls of wisdom from Ben. What I will offer you today, instead, is a joke Ben sent me earlier this week and his views on common sense.

Q.What dilemma faced Washington as he planned to cross the Delaware on his
way to Trenton?
A. Row v. Wade

Now, a brief reflection on Ben's view of politics and common sense. In many of the conversations we have had, Ben always returns to the same point: Conservative views are just common sense. I asked him to unpack this a few weeks ago, and give me some examples. He paused for a moment and then, inspired, said: lenient parole boards are simply bad ideas. He also thinks that it is common sense that women do not belong in the front lines of war. Finally, he pointed out that it was common sense to keep gay men out of the military, since it will surely break down morale among the unit.

I scratched my head.

In turn, we discussed all his examples, but I will just focus on the lenient parole board issue today. The day we were discussing this we happened to be sitting with and behind two young men who have done time. If you met these two men, you would never know they had. Neither of these men committed a violent crime: one was drug related, the other was a theft. Discussing parole boards, sentencing for crimes, and the re-entering of felons into society with Ben's "common sense" view--criminals should be in prison and get no leniency in their sentences--was surreal in the face of an actual "ex-felon" affected, and suffering by this worldview.

Before pointing out some questions I have for Ben, I want to represent, as faithfully as I can, Ben's position. He believes in the rule of law (unless of course you need to defend yourself, and then you better have your "1911" handy). He believes in a rigid, clear cut system of punishment. If you committ a crime, and its a felony, you belong in jail and you deserve the disenfranchisement that comes with a felony. There is very little nuance or subtlety in his views.

The young man sitting with us during this conversation pushed Ben to think about his views a bit. His crime was committed 5 years ago, when he was 19. He robbed a store in a rather desperate act. He admitted to the crime, served his time. However, as he said quite eloquently, "I am still being punished for a crime that I already served my time for." What he means by this is he cannot get a job. He filled out a job application for a retail store and they rejected him because he is felon. When he was pulled over by a cop, who suspected him of speeding, the cop proceeded to give him 5 citations adding up to $400 when he found out he was on parole. And, more recently, he had cut his finger doing an odd job (which is the only work he can get) and went to the hospital to get stitches. When he opened the bill from the hospital, it turned out he owes $1200 dollars, because he has no insurance. Why doesn't he have insurance? I think you can figure it out.

Here is where Ben and I differ in our impressions of what is common sense. Where Ben might see the treatment that this young man is getting to be justified, I see this system as likely to encourage more crime. I am not saying that our friend will reoffend. However, I am not surprised that many felons of non-violent crimes reoffend, given the world they return to after serving their time. Moreover, we cannot deny how politics play into tougher sentences. A politician seeking office is quite likely to mete out stiffer punishments to prove he is not wimp on crime (see The Soul Knows No Bars, Drew Leder).

The last issue on this topic that I discussed with Ben was class. I presented him with a scenario--a thought experiment--and asked him what he thought would happen. Before I present this thought experiment, I want to note that I often do this with Ben and his response is to say "I'll believe it when I see it," or "that would never happen," etc.

Let's take two 19 year-olds: One is hispanic, lives in a poor section of town, and sells pot to make money. The other 19 year-old is a liberal arts college student who sells his ritalin to folks on campus. Who is likely to be put in jail?