Friday, March 5, 2010

Recessions, Inmates, and the Politics of Fear

Safety is the Issue as Budget Cuts Free Prisoners:

In the rush to save money in grim budgetary times, states nationwide have trimmed their prison populations by expanding parole programs and early releases. But the result — more convicted felons on the streets, not behind bars — has unleashed a backlash, and state officials now find themselves trying to maneuver between saving money and maintaining the public’s sense of safety.

In February, lawmakers in Oregon temporarily suspended a program they had expanded last year to let prisoners, for good behavior, shorten their sentences (and to save $6 million) after an anticrime group aired radio advertisements portraying the outcomes in alarming tones. “A woman’s asleep in her own apartment,” a narrator said. “Suddenly, she’s attacked by a registered sex offender and convicted burglar.”
Lord. I'm sure the radio advertisement didn't say, "a registered sex offender and convicted burglar who happens to be her ex-husband or boyfriend," since these kinds of attacks almost always happen between intimates.

Remember Rule #1 about the Politics of Fear: facts are irrelevant.

Rule #2: Don't be caught looking as though you support the early release of inmates, even if it's your job to do so.
Among the 13,541 inmates released on parole in Michigan in 2009 was Scott W. Hankins, who had twice been convicted in sex cases and who had been accused by prosecutors of molesting other girls he had met at church, some of whom were developmentally disabled. The youngest girl, prosecutors say, was 7.

In one measure of how tangled the fight in Michigan has become, Mike Cox, the attorney general and a Republican candidate for governor, whose job includes defending the State Department of Corrections and its Parole and Commutation Board in their parole decisions, has also filed separate amicus briefs in eight of the cases, including Mr. Hankins’s, opposing parole.

Natch. He is, after all, a candidate for governor, trying to head off the inevitable "he's defendin' molesters gettin' out of prison early" political attack of his opponents.

I'd say Rule #3 usually goes something like: it takes just one case, one sex offender out on parole who screws up, to torpedo an entire state's program. But in the case above, it's better to take a preemptive strike and put this Hankins guy back in prison before he does something.

Mr. Hankins, 53, was released on parole in November under strict rules. He moved to a community facility and wore a tether tracking his movement. He was barred from living with anyone 17 or younger, being near playgrounds, using the Internet or going to a topless bar.

On Dec. 30, Ms. Cooper’s appeal led a judge to send Mr. Hankins back to prison; a hearing on his case is scheduled for Wednesday.

“He wasn’t causing any problem,” said Michael J. McCarthy, Mr. Hankins’s lawyer. “He was trying to find a job.”

The irony. The recession caused his early release from prison and the recession (by virtue of not being employed, often a condition of parole) caused his early return.

[Bonus irony: the recession itself was caused by white-collar criminals, none of whom have ever been properly punished. So the street thugs end up paying the price for the Wall Street thugs and their malfeasance. Ain't it grand?]

Not to be too flip here: of course, great care should be made when releasing any inmate back into society, early or otherwise, and there is nothing wrong with prosecutors or victims being allowed to object to said early releases.

But let's remember too that this is the political season for 2010, and nothing sells soap (or disciplines the populace) quite like the fear of crime.

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