President Donald Trump is backing bipartisan prison reform legislation that will change aspects of criminal law favored by some on the right, including the three strikes rule, which delivers life in prison for repeat offenders.
… the prison population has exploded…
The First Step Act is designed to correct what are perceived to be unduly harsh sentences, that have hit hard especially the black community, and to provide a helpful path back to civil society. Trump explained that “we’re all better off when former inmates can … re-enter society as law-abiding, productive citizens.”
The bill still needs to be passed by the Republican-majority Senate, but with Trump’s backing there is good reason to believe it will be enacted. The bill will reduce sentencing for non-violent crimes such as drug offenses. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) welcomed the bill, telling Sean Hannity on Fox News:
Wouldn’t it be ironic (if) it was Donald Trump and the Republican Congress working with Democrats that allowed just thousands of African-American and Hispanic males a second chance for non-violent offenses? And create bed space for truly violent people.
However, not everyone is happy about the bill. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed the opinion that it would be a mistake to allow drug traffickers off with leniency.
The crux of the problem is that, as with so many other economic, social, scientific, and natural phenomena, crime is subject to Pareto distribution. Sometimes known as the 80-20 principle, it is loosely based on wealth distribution, where 20% of the people control 80% of the wealth. The model has a biblical foundation, and it is sometimes referred to as the Matthew principle: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29, RSV)
Wealth tends to accumulate among a small minority; most innovations are accomplished by a handful of people. Most books and music sell few or no copies, and a minuscule group of authors and artists end up as best-sellers. The same principle applies to the dark side of society: a small minority of repeat offenders commit almost all crimes.
The idea behind the three strikes rule is to discourage the repeat offenders, but it hasn’t worked out as intended by President Bill Clinton and lawmakers who worked with him. Sadly, since the ‘90s, the prison population has exploded, and the heavy application of three strikes is an important contributor to that problem.
Freakonomics author Steven Levitt points out that the Dutch government has had great success with a restrictive version of the rule. By applying the rule only to offenders with ten or more offenses and a history of being resistant to short-term rehabilitation programs, better outcomes have been achieved.
When the cost of imprisonment is included in the overall cost of crime, it is demonstrably more effective to restrict the application of the rule.
Fathers = Less Crime
While prison reform can certainly help curb the structural injustices in the system, the greatest return on investment can be achieved long before people enter prisons. The single greatest crime risk factor is perhaps the absence of fathers in families. Of the deadliest mass shooters, 26 out of 27 were not raised by their biological fathers.
Author Ann Coulter documented in her book Guilty: Liberal “Victims” and Their Assault on America that “the strongest predictor of whether a person will end up in prison is that he was raised by a single parent. By 1996, 70% of inmates in state juvenile detention centers serving long-term sentences were raised by single mothers.”
Singapore is known for its exceptionally low crime. Many people attribute that to their harsh penal code, but what is often overlooked is that the Southeast Asian nation has one of the lowest rates of single parenthood in the developed world. In 2017, only 7% of children lived with a lone parent.
By solidly cultivating and preserving the two-parent family, Singapore reaps the benefit of virtually no crime. America could learn from this. While prison reform is important, rehabilitating the two-parent family is likely to be more effective in the long run.