By Alan Bean
If you want to know how America became the incarceration nation, locking up six times as many of our citizens as most western democracies, look no further than this story.
I’ll admit it, my blood boils when I think of the reckless behavior of a pampered kid from a wealthy family destroying so many innocent lives. And experience (and prejudice) leads me to suspect that an indigent defendant would not have fared nearly as well.
But you don’t change legislation in response to a single case. This is always how it works in America. The populous gets up in arms about an isolated case bristling with unusually bad facts. Next, the politicians chime in with promises of vengeance. They sense a political opportunity and fear the consequences of appearing soft. Finally, bad laws are passed giving rise to a host of unintended consequences.
Hopefully this story will be long forgotten by the time legislators have a chance to exploit it. But if a law is passed to ensure that rich kids are held accountable, the first to suffer will be the usual suspects from the wrong side of the tracks.
Would Texas be a safer place if the young man at the heart of this story had been sentenced to 20 years? Inmates are released back into society in 95% of cases and generally re-enter the community as walking time bombs ticking loudly. Prison crushes the human spirit–that is what it is designed to do. We stopped talking about rehabilitation forty years ago.
The desire for revenge is natural and understandable, but it makes for incredibly bad public policy. If you aren’t sure what I mean, read on . . . (more…)