Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Bob Walsh has posted another outstanding piece on PacoVilla’s Corrections blog. He lists 10 truths about crime and criminals. I have decided to reproduce only seven of them because nos. 6, 8 and 10 refer to truths that are specific to California and may not apply nationwide.

By Bob Walsh

PacoVilla’s Corrections blog
August 12, 2009

Sometime within the next 2 years or thereabouts the people of the formerly great state of California are going to have to make a series of major (and possibly expensive) decisions about what way they want their criminal justice system to go, and how much they are willing to pay for that direction.

Criminals are (at least arguably) people. It is always dangerous to generalize too broadly about people as a group, because people as individuals can fall far outside of the norm. Never the less, ever since serious statistics have been kept, there are a few truths that have emerged about crime, criminals and criminal activity.

Truth #1. At some time in their life about 10% of the general public will have a significant adverse contact with "the system" and will land in jail or prison. This is a broad group and includes drunken fist fighters and cold blooded murderers as well as everything in between. The more important truth is the opposite of this, 90% of the general public will NEVER be in prison or jail for anything (except to work there or bail their brother-in-law out).

Truth #2. A relatively small number of criminals account for a relatively large percentage of crime. This is often called the 80-20 rule and is true in many fields. If you are a sales manger, you will note that about 20% of your sales people are your real star performers and constantly outperform the others. If you are in human resources you are aware that 20% of your employees cause about 80% of your problems. The same is true of criminals. A relatively small number of burglars account for a huge percentage of residential burglaries. A relatively small number of car thieves account for a huge percentage of the unrecovered stolen cars. A relatively small number or criminals account for the huge majority of serious personal violence, i.e. violent muggings, armed robberies, sexual assaults and similar depredations.

Truth #3. If we can identify this relatively small number of criminals and incapacitate them, we can have a major effect on criminal activity. Incapacity can be gained in many ways. Killing the criminals is permanent and used to be fairly cheap to actually accomplish. The former is still true, the latter is not. Lopping off the hands of pick pockets is effective and cheap, but we can't / don't do that any more. We now go for identifying these criminals, based on records of convictions, and locking them up for much longer periods of time than we might otherwise. This process used to be called a "habitual offender law" (aka The Big Bitch) and is now commonly called "Three Strikes", though in actuality the second strikers are likely to be more numerous. The point is, this identification has been fairly accurate. Places where this disparate sentencing program has been enacted, like California, saw a marked reduction in targeted criminal activity since the program has been enacted. That is unarguable. It works.

Truth #4. Locking people up for longer periods of time is expensive. It becomes more so when you add rehabilitation attempts and Cadillac health care. The old style of warehouse incarceration was fairly inexpensive. We didn't force prisoners to go to school. We didn't force prisoners to work, or even pretend to work. They could spend all day every day on the yard (where do you think the term "Yard Bird" came from?) as long as they didn't get into trouble. They got just enough medical care to keep them from croaking (usually) and the serious nutters were isolated and sort-of provided with indifferent mental health care. It was cheap, and it worked IF, by worked, you mean in kept the inmates off the streets. (Incapacity, the inability to commit further crime.) It didn't even pretend to rehabilitate.

Truth #5. Turnkeys can no longer effectively operate prisons, at least in California. When all you had to do was run a key pattern 4 or 5 times a shift, hand out mail and TP and break up the occasional fight, pretty much anybody who could read and write and was reasonably physically fit and willing to jump in when necessary could do the job. Professional Correctional Officers need to be trained to recognize suicidal inmates BEFORE they turn into pavement pizza or prison pinatas. The court says so. Professional Correctional Officers need to be trained to recognize signs of heat stroke. The court says so. Inmate legal mail must be handled in such and such a manner. The court says so. Inmates must be shuffled expeditiously to their myriad of court hearings and medical appointments. The court says so. Staff must know when to use force, when to not use force, how much force to use when. All of these things take training. Training takes time and cost money and requires staff who are capable of absorbing and retaining the training and still have the willingness to throw fists, swing batons, toss gas bombs and fire live ammunition at living people when necessary and still function within the environment of a prison. Such people do not grow on trees. The talent pool is not unending and must be shared with other public safety organizations. When I started in 1980 the academy was 3 weeks. It was mostly 832, firearms use and report writing. Many of the people I worked with back then went to a two week academy and a few of the real old timers signed on when there was no formalized training program.

Truth #7. Prisons are not warm and fuzzy. "Prison guards" are not warm and fuzzy. Schools are warm and fuzzy. State parks are warm and fuzzy. Nurses are warm and fuzzy. "Rehabilitation" is sort-of warm and fuzzy. People don't mind so much spending money for warm and fuzzy, within reason. Much of the public resents spending money "on criminals". The "criminal lobby" (Prison Law Office, ACLU, etc.) wants to spend more money on criminals as people, but less money on prisons as places to put them.

Truth #9. Criminals do not obey rules. That's why they are criminals. Just because they are in prison does not mean that they can be counted on to behave, other than in their own perceived personal self-interest, and even that isn't a given.

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