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Don't Get Locked Up in Texas: Practical Alternatives to the Death Penalty

Graph 1
(Wordcount: 1,164; Pages: 4) Here's an interesting tid-bit from a Dec. 5 article in the Wall Street Journal:

"Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in 2004, 713,990 were in local jails, up from 486,474 in 1994. The number of violent criminals in local jails has risen even faster, more than doubling over a decade to 160,300 in 2002. Jail-related costs for local governments totaled $16.7 billion in 2001, the last year for which figures are available, up from $3 billion in 1982." - from "With Jails Bulging, Some Sheriffs Let Inmates Go Early"

On Christmas Eve's edition, on the front page, under "What's New", the WSJ reported the following:

"A Texas man spent over a year in a Dallas jail awaiting trial without ever seeing a lawyer. His charge, contempt, carried a six-month maximum." - http://todays.wsj.com/WSJ_-A001-20051224.pdf

According to FBI statistics (1), in 2004, both Florida and Texas (Bush states - yeah!) had the 2nd and 3rd highest number of violent crimes respectively (the 1st was California). Reader should note that crime rates directly correlate with size of population (not to mention demographics), thus, Delaware, with less than a million residents, can have a higher percentage of violent crimes in their state than both TX and CA. Furthermore, our analysis reveals that crime in the U.S. tracks the number of the men and women in uniform that guard us from (and maintain prison populations of) really bad people (see Graph 1). The reason we're still using the above-mentioned figures is that despite similar crime-to-population statistics, cops are clearly busier in more populated states, and as a natural consequence, may let certain procedural things - like releasing those who've served their time - slide.

So, despite an apparent necessity in Texas to lock 'em up and forget about 'em, they're not unique in their efforts to "clean up our streets", leading us inexorably to the question of what happens each time we lock up one additional felon, when there's no room, no guards, and no budgets to address either? Understand that we're not running out of room; we've already run out of room.

On The Question of the Death Penalty

We cherish human life just enough to take their freedom away for any offense, but when it comes to eliminating a leech on our social resources, we squirm at the thought of letting them go and protest at the thought of putting society out of its misery with execution. Granted that the percentage of criminals to total population is miniscule enough to ignore what's billed as a problem of overcrowded jails and overtaxed law-enforcement personnel, however, unlike our overcrowded schools, if we can't contain criminal behavior, the repercussions are questionably greater than a government agency's inability to educate a student.

Ending another living being's life invariably violates many social and lifestyle beliefs (outside of extreme circumstances, of course). And under the laws that govern our lives as U.S. citizens, even criminals have rights, (especially since in another part of the world, a criminal act may not have been criminal or warranted the punishment the U.S. system dished out). While it may seem inexcusable that an inmate being punished for their crime should also be permitted to enjoy liberties like watching television or participating in athletics, every law-enforcement officer knows that sometimes these are the activities that placate and calm all of us down enough for just one of them to manage a group of us more effectively without implementing tactics that violate our rights. Establishing accommodations reminiscent of fictional planetary penal colonies has been deemed unmanageable, even for the basest criminal, since anyone under the care of a prison transfers liability for their actions onto the prison, and should they violate the rights of any other prisoner, the prison is liable - a pile of dynamite waiting for a match in our litigious society.

Graph 2
Source: U.S. Department of Justice. Note: These figures only date back 20 years and follow a general population increase

So if we can't kill 'em, what then? Build more prisons? No, since that's feeding into the root cause of the problem. The alternative to the death penalty is to address the root cause: consider that it is possible that the reason other "civilized societies" have banned executions is because no other society makes it so easy to commit and escape punishment for a crime than ours. Frankly, citizens just won't commit a crime in nations where the alternatives to executions are simply far worse. This argument isn't calling for more stringent laws or torture, but instead, starting by setting the bar much lower for what constitutes a crime at all. In the last 30 years, the number of adults in the U.S. that have ever served time has doubled. (2) It's not just that crime is rising, but rather, what's considered criminal is. Moreover, the ease with which one can escape punishment for a crime makes criminals more prone to engage in their behavior. (See Graph 2. Reader should note that these figures only date back 20 years and follow a general population increase.)

For example, during the course of the U.S.'s financial history, perfectly acceptable behavior one day became absolutely illegal behavior the next. A shift in social sentiment, accompanied by wealthy advocates who felt wronged, miraculously changed "Your" to "Their" in the old investment adage "At Your Own Risk". So, despite the fact that law serves its citizens, it's always the few who benefit from a change. If this fact holds up to historical scrutiny, there's something to be said for adopting a more conservative approach at introducing new laws until the benefits extend to the majority.

Having the burden of being reprimanded under a new law falls upon a select few, who supposedly set the example for the rest and dissuade us from engaging in similarly criminal activities. Regrettably, that's not how human behavior works. "Of the 272,111 persons released from prisons in 15 States in 1994, an estimated 67.5% were rearrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor within 3 years, 46.9% were reconvicted, and 25.4% resentenced to prison for a new crime" (3).

Should anyone actually break a crime under our proposed lower-but-tougher standards, behavioral economic theory shows that limiting punishments to 10 or fewer very severe and always enforced penalties, including compelling payment of financial remunerations at the risk of transferring their obligations to third parties, has a greater likelihood of fulfillment of these punishments by the guilty person. Taking a guilty person's choices away isn't the punishment, as our punishment infrastructure is currently set up to do, but simplifying punishment sentences will help in doing what we ultimately want: to change the criminal behavior into something more socially acceptable.

Of 14 million arrests (in 2004), approximately half end(ed) up imprisoned (4). At a lower 2001 imprisonment rate, the Dept. of Justice predicted that "an estimated 1 of every 15 persons (6.6%) will serve time in a prison during their lifetime", which, at that rate, can very well include someone in your immediate family in the future. It's only a matter of time before our "civilized" society recategorizes most civil behavior as uncivilized, making this democracy no better than a dictatorship or communism.


(1) Crime in the United States 2004: Uniform Crime Report; al berrios & co. analysis

(2) U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Criminal Offenders Statistics

(3) Ibid.

(4) al berrios & co. analysis

Al Berrios is Managing Director of al berrios & co., an innovative strategy consulting firm advising leaders on the impact of human behavior on their strategies and on how to change their organizations to address the behavior. Write to Consumer Strategies Report at editor @ alberrios.com.


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