Monday, November 09, 2009

Manufacturing felons

In an earlier blog post entitled "Sex Offender Pleas for Prison", I wrote, "I would like to be optimistic about a "turn around" in the economy...but I can't be. The rise of homelessness is merely one of about five social factors that (IMO) must "turn around" and sharply so before optimism is justified". A reader wants to know what the other "social factors" or trends are.

I will address them one at a time. Another trend that must sharply reverse in order to allow the economy to heal is a marked increase in the criminalization almost everything. The most pronounced increase has been in 'crimes' that involve children and sex. A zero tolerance policy has resulted in a soaring rate of children being arrested and branded as sex offenders, often for behavior that would have formerly been considered reckless hijinx or hormones. For example, streaking, sexual contact between two pre-18-year-olds, mooning, etc. For sexting their own photos, children are being charged and convicted of distributing and/or possessing child porn. This, despite the fact that a recent study by Peter Cumming, an associate professor at York University in Toronto, the practice to be a modern variation on "playing doctor or spin-the-bottle" and no more harmful than those 'games.' (For more on the surge of children being convicted of sex offenses, see the excellent critique on Classically Liberal.)

The criminalization of the formerly non-criminal extends far beyond what any reasonable person would consider sexual behavior. Consider an earlier blog post entitled "Man arrested for making coffee naked and alone in own kitchen." He was arrested after a woman and her son -- who cut across his property -- looked through his window. The most interesting aspect of the story is that the arresting officer ran the 'crime' past the D.A.'s office before acting. This is interesting because it signals that the arrest was not an aberration or due to a rogue cop. And, when the news story went viral, the official response of the police was not an apology but a ramping up of the case; cops that could have been investigating real crimes were sent instead to conduct mass interviews in the hope of getting anyone to file a complaint against the nude coffee-maker. In short, his arrest got both official pre-approval and a vigorous post-defense. If convicted, the fellow faces up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

You hear this over and over again; the police brutalization of innocent people is both sanctioned and defended by the higher-ups. Consider another instance: the fellow who was innocently walking home from a pizza parlor in Pittsburgh during the G-20 Summit and protests in that city only to encounter about 15 policemen who forced him to his knees to facilitate a "trophy photo" reminiscent of those snapped of enemy prisoners during a war. The most interesting aspect of that story? Police supervisors were among the photo-op hungry thugs.

Today my eyes were caught by the headline "Arlington Catholic football player charged"; the story that followed...A criminal charge has been filed against an Arlington Catholic football player who allegedly head-butted an opposing player whose helmet had been knocked off in a football game last month....Daniel Curtin, who could not play football for 10 days after the incident because of concussion concerns, suffered two lacerations and an “apple-sized’’ lump on his forehead, his mother said. LaShoto, who was an honors student and captain of the team, was suspended for two games by Arlington Catholic, said his lawyer, Ronald Martignetti of Winchester. Martignetti said the suspension, which was formulated in conjunction with both Arlington Catholic and Abington High School officials, was adequate. "We see this as an unfortunate incident,’’ Martignetti said, and the filing of charges as “a misuse of the criminal process.’’

Yes, you agree (as prudent readers are wont to do) this destroys civil liberties, but what does this have to do with the economy...?

The juggernaut of criminalization has a profound impact not only on the individuals involved but also upon society as a whole.

The impact on the individuals involved is more obvious and, so, can be stated briefly. The accused must spend money on fines, attorney fees, bail, etc. -- money that is diverted from productive uses like education or investment. If convicted, most will lose jobs, their place at college and, those who fall behind in bills, may lose their homes and be forced into bankruptcy. They could also forfeit the most productive years of life. They could be legally barred from certain professions, from 'privileges' like acquiring a Passport and from receiving some government benefits. On a less official basis, finding a good job or renting in a desirable area could be a problem; employers and landlords reject people due to bad credit scores these days; a felony conviction will be huge black mark.

Criminalization is creating a large segment within society that consists of second-class citizens in terms of both civil liberties and economic prospects. Every non-violent individual who is rendered "a criminal" is someone who no longer functions productively in society. What percentage of people can be legally stripped of upward mobility without making society stumble? I don't know but we may be currently testing the limit.

The economic impact on society is immense in other ways as well. The taxpayer -- that is, you -- pays the staggering cost of arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning "criminals" for acts such as making coffee in the nude. (Indeed, the high prison population in California is one of the reasons for that state's bankruptcy.) As a taxpayer, you also pay to settle the lawsuits that occur more frequently in response to abuses of process. Meanwhile, when police and the courts focus on non-violent people, you are less safe from those who assault, steal, rape or murder.

Law enforcement is one of the few areas of employment growth these days but, remember, it is tax-paid employment that adds to the drain of money from productive, private hands into yet another bureaucratic purse. Government cannot create money or wealth; government only redistributes it. Every non-violent person who is arrested represents money taken from your family and your future; it goes instead to the families and futures of government employees. Understandably, this reduces your incentive to create wealth because more and more of it is stolen to feed fat bureaucrats and those who damage your life, your police officers.

I do not see the criminalization juggernaut stopping any time soon. There are glimmers of progress, like the de facto legalization of medical marijuana, but I think they are aberrations; the general trend remains solidly toward the manufacture of felons as fast as they can be cranked out. Politicians cannot be elected on a platform of "let's get softer on crime!" Huge and rich industries (including the police, courts, the probation system, prison guards, name a few) depend on continuing and expanding the criminalization process. That process has been institutionalized, which means it is very difficult to confront successfully. Moreover, too many people seem to want a police state. The government has done a wonderful job of scaring the hell out of the public and everyone wants to be safe. As long as it is not their door that is being broken down, a large percentage of people applauds and defends the police's brutality and totalitarianism

So...along with a soaring rate of homelessness, the criminalization of everyday life is one of the trends that must be reversed if society is to economically recover.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today. Now hosted on Wordpress. If you cannot access it, go to the MIRROR SITE, where posts appear as well as on the primary site. I have reposted the archives (past posts) for Wicked Thoughts on Wicked Thoughts Archive

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