Curtis Hill: Coronavirus and inmates — ACLU's bad idea ignores these realities about crime

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In a perfect world, no one would ever get locked up in a jail or prison, because in a perfect world, no one would ever commit a crime deserving of such punishment.

Alas, we don’t live in a perfect world.

And in America, most people locked up in jails or prisons are there for good reason.

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This spring, the American Civil Liberties Union made news with demands that states and the federal government release large numbers of offenders due to the spread of the coronavirus among inmates. The better option, however, is for correctional officials to simply follow the protocols recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s exactly what’s happening here in Indiana and other states.

Quite apart from the current health crisis, however, let’s remember that the ACLU has long implored government at all levels to release as many inmates as possible back onto our streets.

And that’s a bad idea.

On the ACLU’s website, the organization complains that “despite making up close to 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. has nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population ... Our prison system costs taxpayers $80 billion per year. This money should be spent building up, not further harming, communities. Investment, not incarceration, is how we improve safety.”

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But the ACLU ignores the reason the United States locks up so many people. Quite simply, too many people commit serious crimes. Even the alarming and disproportionate number of blacks in prison arises directly from the disproportionate amount of violent crime committed in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods — a pattern that also produces a disproportionate number of black victims.

It’s the crime itself — not holding offenders accountable — that is harming our communities.

You think most people serving time are locked up for nonviolent offenses such as drug possession or dealing? If so, think again.

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Consider the fact that almost nine of every 10 prison inmates in the United States are in state correctional facilities, and less than 15 percent of those inmates are there for drug offenses.

That’s just one fact recently shared by Rafael A. Mangual, deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

Mangual has emerged as one of the true voices of reason in discussions over U.S. incarceration rates. He points out that most state inmates are incarcerated for the crimes of murder (14 percent); rape or sexual assault (13 percent); robbery (13 percent); aggravated or simple assault (11 percent); and burglary (9 percent).

Further, he observed:

  • Almost half of drug offenders in the United States are released within a year of being incarcerated.
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost 40 percent of released state prisoners served less than a year in prison.
  • Approximately 20 percent of murderers and 60 percent of rapists/sexual assaulters serve fewer than five years in prison.

Such statistics hardly paint a picture of a society that keeps too many people locked up.

Mangual also rightly highlights the significant role of plea bargaining in cases where offenders appear to be serving time for relatively low-level offenses. The most serious charges are often dropped in exchange for guilty pleas to less serious crimes — so conviction records often understate the seriousness of crimes committed by offenders.

Certainly, we all grieve to see people locked away in prison rather than leading productive lives. Rightfully so. But we grieve even more for the innocent victims of their crimes.

We must recognize that a very small percentage of people commits the large majority of crime in any particular community.

The best correctional models are those that hold offenders accountable for their crimes but that also help improve their character by addressing social, emotional, spiritual, educational and familial issues through targeted services.

On average, someone arrested for a homicide or shooting in Chicago had nearly 12 prior arrests, according to a University of Chicago study cited by Mangual. And almost 20 percent of those arrested for these crimes had more than 20 prior arrests.

And these criminals typically operate in hardscrabble, low-income neighborhoods. So if we allow persistent lawbreakers to freely roam the streets, we are hurting those families and individuals already facing the steepest challenges. We are causing damage to the very people we should be trying our hardest to help.

Where is the compassion in that?

By all means, let’s do our best to reform offenders whenever and wherever possible.

The best correctional models are those that hold offenders accountable for their crimes but that also help improve their character by addressing social, emotional, spiritual, educational and familial issues through targeted services.

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I have long championed measures such as jail chemical addiction programs (JCAP). As we lock up offenders, we should also provide them opportunities to turn their lives around and break the cycles that lead them repeatedly into criminal behavior.

But the ACLU’s claim that the United States incarcerates too many people remains an exercise in delusion. All those who believe in the rule of law must remain as vigilant in refuting the ACLU’s argument with facts as the ACLU is persistent in propping it up with fallacies.

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