Apr. 18th, 2012

kent_allard_jr: (morans)
Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times reports on the fate of Anders Breivik:
If the court finds him insane, Mr. Breivik will be kept under forced psychiatric care “for as long as his illness persists” (possibly the rest of his life). Otherwise, Mr. Breivik’s maximum sentence will be 21 years, although a judge can extend his incarceration after that point if he’s still considered dangerous.

By American standards that’s a shockingly lenient punishment. Comparing one high-profile case with another—if a Florida jury finds George Zimmerman guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, he’ll face a maximum sentence of life in prison, and a minimum penalty of 25 years.

The American system, oriented around punishment (vengeance) and containment (keeping dangerous people off the streets), is arguably more satisfying for a crime like Mr. Breivik’s. But outside of worst-of-the-worst type cases, it’s Norway, with its focus on rehabilitation, that has the more rational and effective prison policy.
Norway locks up only one-tenth as many people as the US. The sentences (as noted) are much lighter, and conditions in prison much cushier, with each cell having a flat-screen TV, an unbarred window and a private bathroom. Nevertheless they have a far lower recidivism rate: Only 20% of their inmates return to jail after 2 years, while 60% of ours do. Their system clearly works better than ours.

In comments you hear a standard response, one that comes up a lot with crime and punishment: You can't compare Norway with the US because Norway is a "homogeneous society." It's never explicit why "homogeneity" leads to low crime rates, and I wonder if its a euphemistic way of saying "they have less crime because they have fewer n*****s." I doubt they're saying America's history of exploitation and racism is responsible, because while that might explain the US approach to crime, it spectacularly fails in justifying it.

I think there is something to the latter, in fact. When you look at homicide rates around the world you find the highest rates are found in Russia, Latin America from Mexico to Brazil, and South Africa. If we put Putin's Russia aside for a moment, we see a history of race-based slavery and segregation is something they all have in common. It's telling that the highest US crime rates are in the South and Southwest, as well, with slavery and Jim Crow in the former and the Mexican underclass in the latter.

In these countries the police are -- or were for far too long -- an occupying, alien army, deployed against an underclass that "only understood force." Arbitrary violence -- and thus imprecise and unjust violence -- was deployed against them, while they were denied any opportunity to improve themselves. In an environment like that the law has no legitimacy; it's something to be avoided, not cooperated with, no better or worse than the gangsters down the street ... and the gangsters know the community and can keep closer tabs on you.

So crime is high, and it stays high long after slavery is abolished, Apartheid ends and the lynch mobs go home. People hate and fear criminals, and there's nothing wrong with that, as long as they don't let hatred and fear overwhelm their better instincts. Unfortunately it's easy to be overwhelmed when criminals don't look or talk like them; it's easy to fall back on old assumptions, that you're dealing with subhumans who "only understand force." Even when it's clear that treating criminals decently, as the Norwegians seem to do, actually makes the streets safer.

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August 2012

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