Earlier this week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) gave a speech at the Hudson Institute in honor of Police Week, where he made the audacious claim that the United States has a problem with “under-incarceration.” You read that correctly, Tom Cotton thinks that the developed country with the highest per-capita prison population in the world hasn’t put enough people in jail.
Cotton’s intended audience were law enforcement officials, so I understand he was attempting to pander to their position, but the idea that the United States should be putting more of its citizens behind bars is so ludicrously asinine and insulting that it makes Hillary Clinton’s attempts to pander to African Americans by telling a hip-hop radio station she keeps hot sauce in her purse look like child’s play.
First, let’s start with Cotton’s claim that mass incarceration in the 1980’s and 1990’s is responsible for the precipitous drop in the national crime rate. The Brennan Center for Justice did a comprehensive study of the possible explanations for the drop in crime and mass incarceration was just one of thirteen possible explanations, most of which were deemed “inconclusive.” The simple truth is that we don’t know why the crime rate has dropped so much. It also may not be any one factor, but a combination of all of the above.
Cotton’s blatant cherry picking of this statistic to make his point is effective, but also dishonest and ignorant. Public policy should be rooted in careful analysis, not prejudice, predisposition, and petty politics.
But let’s pretend for a second (and only a second) that Cotton is right, and that jailing everyone who commits a crime for the next ten years of their life really is the best way to prevent crimes. But, is that really the best use of our resources? Does it contribute to a just and verdant society down the road? Does it help those criminals repent, reform, and move on from their transgressions?
For starters, it certainly isn’t the best use of our resources. The National Dialogue Network recently conducted a study where it was determined that the state of Ohio could fund a child’s entire education at public schools and university through a master’s degree for the price of one year of incarceration.
It is well known that the best way to prevent a child from becoming a criminal is to provide them with a great education. If the state is so willing to spend six figures every year jailing those who have strayed from a good path, why not invest that money on the front end to give them opportunity outside of crime?
Once people are jailed (and thus not committing crimes in society) will they be better off once they are released? Most of the time the answer is absolutely not. Serving time stigmatizes a person for life. Jobs become harder to get, house becomes harder to acquire, and social relationships falter. In addition, most people who commit crimes do so in their prime development years, so if they spend those years in jail they are sacrificing their prime years for work training, retirement savings, marriage and family time, and educational opportunities.
How is someone better off as a 35 year old with no previous job experience, no family, and a black mark on their employment application better for society than someone who went through a rehabilitation program in their early twenties and went on to find a steady job?
Cotton then attempts to back up his mass incarceration claim by stating that “criminal leniency would lead to more poverty” and that the state “cannot decrease the severity and certainty of sentences without increasing crime. It’s simply impossible.” He supports this with absolutely no facts and no data. In real life – which Cotton seems to be detached from – prison actually proves to be detrimental to preventing crime.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that 65% of those who are sent to jail recidivate and another study showed that every year spent in jail increases recidivism rates by nearly 6%. Cotton would argue that is because “criminals are criminals” but I would argue that it’s because jail doesn’t accomplish what the “justice” system was intended to. The theory behind sentences is not only to punish but to reform.
Given the high recidivism rate, it is obvious the reform part is completely failing. And when you take into account the sky-high price of locking people up, it would make infinitely more sense to invest in a justice system that focused on reforming citizens instead of putting them in an environment more likely to harden them.
But Cotton doesn’t stop there. In his speech he proceeds to target Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia for restoring voting rights to former felons. He says, “Just last month, one governor restored voting rights to more than 200,000 felons, regardless of the offense committed or evidence of rehabilitation.” What Cotton doesn’t mention was that this new order just restored voting rights of Virginia felons to the same status as former felons in Arkansas. Cotton either didn’t do his research, or is aiming to make a nakedly political point. I’m guessing it’s both.
What is most egregious about the arguments Cotton is making is that he is turning people’s lives into political footballs. Restricting individual’s liberty is the most powerful thing a state can do. Once an officer puts the cuffs on someone, their life is no longer in their own hands. They become subject to the mercy of the courts. Their finances become subject to payment of court fees and their future freedom becomes subject to a judge’s whims.
Cotton later added for dramatic effect: “I saw this in Baghdad. We’ve seen it again in Afghanistan. Security has to come first, whether you’re in a war zone or whether you’re in the United States of America.” Jailing people who commit crimes in order to survive due to destitute conditions or others who are caught smoking weed for fun are not comparable to securing a road free of IEDs.
Senator, your service is admirable, but your political pandering is shameful.
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Photo credit: AP Photo/Alex Brandon