Doing Hard Times

by Jonah Goldberg

The April Fool’s Day parody of the New York Times came out a little early this year. Or at least that’s what I thought when I first perused the Sunday Times yesterday. On the front page was the story about the Republican party being torn apart by abortion and the Religious Right. It’s the standard “macro” Times story, which they write at least once every couple of weeks, seemingly at the push of a button (see the February 18, 1999 Goldberg File for more). The typical story is something like this: Republicans can’t rally around a standard-bearer, the Christian Coalition is holding the party hostage, the Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater wings have been frozen out of the process. Yada yada yada.

But those wacky guys at the Times didn’t stop there. They also ran a story which pointed out that even though welfare rolls are down in West Virginia, there are still poor people there. Does anyone in the government know about this?

But the capper was the “Week in Review” article about prisons in America. The New York Times is fascinated by the fact that even though crime is falling, there are more people in prison.

If I told you that the number of chickens stolen from my coop had dropped dramatically but the cumulative number of foxes I’ve caught continues to rise, would you dedicate thousands of words to it in the New York Times?

The piece, written by Timothy Egan, is not entirely disingenuous, but it does use a lot of sleight-of-hand to conflate, confuse, and some other word beginning with “con” the facts. The standard media line is that the number of drug arrests has climbed so high that our prisons are being clogged with casual drug offenders. Talk to New York or Hollywood liberals and they’ll swear to you that prisons are crammed with hippies who got caught rolling a joint outside a Grateful Dead concert. I spent a big chunk of my first few years in Washington reading criminal justice data (and, truth be told, hanging out with casual drug offenders). And, while the numbers have changed somewhat the story is still largely the same.

Whenever you hear people bemoaning the fact that our prisons are choked with drug offenders, there are a few things you should know. First, they are really talking about federal prisons, which make up only 10% of the prison population (not including local jails). So, no matter how alarming the number of “non-violent” criminals being stockpiled in the federal prison system, we are still talking about a fraction of a fraction. Second, it is exceedingly rare for a first offender to go to prison. Usually “non-violent” drug offenders are repeat offenders, which should lessen our civil-libertarian sympathies somewhat. If you can’t learn your lesson after being arrested and convicted for drug dealing (anecdotes notwithstanding, it is almost never for repeated drug use) then I for one will not weep if you get locked up after being arrested and convicted a second or third time. Third, a sizeable percentage of drug convictions are achieved because of prior violent or non-drug related crimes. This makes sense. How many drug dealers do you think there are that have not committed other crimes?

Mr. Egan clearly knows these numbers. He writes of the “expanding mass of drug inmates” that “many of those have committed any number of crimes. But a growing number of them have broken no laws other than the ones on drug use.” Be advised: “A growing number” is usually New York Timesese for “a number so small as to be undramatic, but it is getting bigger so let’s just call it growing.” Egan writes that “arrests of people who use drugs just hit an all- time high,” according to the FBI. But that doesn’t mean that convictions for drug use are at an all-time high, nor does it mean that drug users are going to prison. Often you will see the phrase “under correctional supervision.” This sounds like people in prison. It doesn’t mean that. We have several million people on parole and probation. Yes, it’s a worrisome amount, but that doesn’t mean that we should take them off the books or talk about them as if pot smokers are forced to play Duck, Duck, Goose in the shower.

But the larger point brings us back to the chickens and the foxes. The most conservative and accepted number out there is that a typical criminal behind bars commits around 12 unsolved crimes a year when he is on the streets. Some numbers are much higher. So, for each criminal in jail, the crime rate goes down disproportionately. As my old boss, Ben Wattenberg, used to say, “a thug in prison can’t shoot your sister.” The New York Times wants people to believe that there is very little correlation between falling crime rates and the rising rate of people who commit crimes going to the hoosegow. Take this stunning and statistically accurate assertion from Mr. Egan’s article: “For an American born this year, the chance of living some part of life in a correction facility is 1 in 20; for a black American, it is 1 in 4.” As I say, this is, of course, accurate. But it is also monstrously misleading for the Times to invoke it. The Times and the political constituency it represents has long been dedicated to disproving what they believe are conservative shibboleths about religion, sexual mores, lifestyle choices, and the like. If you change the variables to, say, a child born of a two-parent and religious household, the numbers change astronomically. Indeed, income is a far less powerful variable than religion in determining the relative success of a child, according to dozens of under-reported studies. But to cite these reports, according the worldview of the New York Times, would amount to blaming the victims.

The reality is, no matter how you slice it, prisons are not filling up with victims. They are filling up with people who break the law on numerous occasions, often violently, because that is what criminals do.