Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A challenge to the Governor

In principle, there is nothing wrong with Governor Doyle creating a panel to study the incarceration of minorities in Wisconsin. The rates at which, for example, young African American males wind up in prison are troubling whether or not they reflect discrimination in the criminal justice system. Something is going wrong somewhere.

In practice, however, it is likely to be a disaster unless Doyle appoints a panel with a diversity of viewpoints as opposed to simply diverse pigmentation and gender.

The traditional line on the left is that this is fairly materialistic. Paul Soglin assumes that position. The problem is a function of the absence of jobs and the government needs to create more.

He's not completely off base. I am not reflexively opposed to government programs that help inner city kids find productive things to do, but, mostly, this sounds to me like the maintenance of a faith in the face of the facts. The idea that a significant number of offenders would be law abiding if only someone gave them what would almost certainly be a relatively low paying job not only underestimates the extent to which such jobs are already available, but it ignores the degree to which culture and family background have consistently undermined government anti-poverty programs.

The traditional line on the right has been that young black males go to prison more often because they offend more often - and (this is the thing that is so often ignored on the left)their victims are almost always other blacks. James Wigderson points this out and he has the advantage of being right.

Studies, such as the one cited by the Governor, try to wave this off, but not very convincingly.

Still, there are ways in which - even controlling for the extent and severity of offenses - there is probably still a "racial" effect in the criminal justice system. You are far better off in the system if 1)you have the money for a lawyer and 2)you have a supportive family. The lawyer is not likely to get you off, but he or she will make sure that the charge on which you are convicted is as lignt as it can be and that you get heard on sentencing.

A supportive family will give the judge some reason to think that you may have half a chance to pull yourself together.

People on the left (or at least the thoughtful among them)know that, but their response tends to be to assume that culture and family breakdown must be taken as a given or as some inevitable by-product of poverty. Government, they say, should act in ways that mask the racially disprortionate impact of this (by making sure that minorities are not "overrepresented" in prisons) or try to provide - generally when it is too late - what strong families and culture would have.

I think the premise of that view is wrong. There are numerous examples - including the pre-civil rights era African American community - in which families and culture were strong in the face of poverty and discrimination.

The prescription is futile. We can make sure that our prison population looks like America, but we can't do the same with our population of criminals or, and this is key, victims. Blacks are "overrepresented" in that population as well. Maybe King Day would have been an appropriate occasion to appoint a panel to study that.

Nor can government provide what families and culture have not. It can try (sometimes, as in the case of foster care, it must) but treating the symptoms is never as effective as going after the cause.

I think that dialogue between the left and right on this would be useful, but will the Governor make appointments to this panel that will permit that to happen?

1 comment:

Jason said...

Excellent post. There is nothing really to add.