Murder, Prison And Apple Pie

Why is the murder rate in the United States higher than that of any of the other 29 high-income member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)? We have slightly more than 5 murders per 100,000 population; the next nation in the list is Finland with less than half our rate. Just behind Findlant is Israel, South Korea and Scotland. The place least likely to get you whacked? Iceland, followed closely by Japan, Austria, and, paradoxically, Finland's near neighbor, Norway.

Certainly the threat of prison and lengthy prison sentences do not serve as a deterrent. The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other nation. And our prison sentences are obscenely long. In the past 25 years our prison population has grown by 400 percent. Living in the land of the free, it turns out, is dangerous, and it is comparatively easy to lose the very freedom about which we boast.

This morning's New York Times features a column by Charles Blow reflecting yet another statistic on the waste arising from our war on crime. He reports on the social cost of crime. In other words, what does an isolated act in violation of the law cost society in aggregate?

According to researchers at Iowa State University, a murder costs the United States $17.25 million; a rape costs $448,532; and a robbery costs $335,733. Among the factors contributing to the cost of each crime are the costs of incarceration, the collateral costs of caring for the families of those incarcerated, the costs borne by victims in terms of lost opportunity. The study also factored in such costs as insurance and security devices. I am sure that other researchers will find fault with parts of the Iowa study's methodology, but the fact remains: crime is costly.

I am not suggesting that we should decriminalize violence as a means of reducing the social cost of crime: many of the economic consequences of crime would remain the same even if we were to decide not to punish serious crimes. But what I am suggesting is that our rage, and our get-tough-on-crime attitude comes at a cost. According to Blow, the cost of all homicides in the United States in 2007 exceeded what was spent on the Departments of Education, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Labor and Homeland Security in 2010. Instead of building a better country, we're throwing money away at a problem we are not solving.

This is especially so in death penalty cases. We are one of the few industrial nations in the world to believe it is just to kill a person who has committed a crime. Yet the cost of such litigation far exceeds the expense of locking the same prisoner away for the rest of his natural life. These comparative costs surfaced again last week in Connecticut, where lawyers for Steven Hayes, recently convicted of 17 crimes for his brutal role in a home invasion that left three dead in Cheshire in 2007, filed motions disclosing their intent to offer evidence during the penalty phase of the trial of how much money taxpayers could save simply by sentencing Mr. Hayes to life behnd bars.

I concede that the defense in the Hayes case does not exactly come to this argument with clean hands. The general reaction to the argument that it will cost more to litigate the capital case than to imprison Hayes for life flies in the face of the general public reaction to the case: what is the cost of a bullet? Public sentiment runs strong in favor of execution. I debated the morality of the death penalty on the radio not long ago. When I raised the issue of increased costs, the host of the program volunteered that he would gladly pay extra taxes just to see Mr. Hayes killed. The fact is that the cost of prosecuting a death penalty case is directly proportional to the vigor of the defense. Dedicated lawyers fighting for the life of the defendant can cost the state millions of dollars in the decade or so it will take for his death-penalty case to work its way through the courts. The pace of capital litigation is glacial in Connecticut: It's been fifteen years since I lost a capital appeal for one death-row inmate. His case still lingers in the courts with no end in sight. Good, I say.

It cost about $40,000 per year to keep a man in prison for a year. Even a man who resides there for 50 years will cost the state all of $2,000,000. That ia a fraction of the cost of litigating a trial, appeal and post-conviction claims. (And, mind you, all these claims are litigated while the state bears the cost of incarcerating the man it seeks to kill: Call the $40,000 per year a fixed cost.)

Our rage over crime and our rage to kill are costly, and ineffective, luxuries. We'd be wise to rethink the cost of hatred. Our prison population continues to swell, and our murder rate leads the world. We spend a fortune on prisons and not enough on schools. We've arrived at a Manichean sort of equilibrium, easily separating folks into categories labelled good and evil, but spending little time and resources deciding why in this, the land of the free and home of the brave, we cannot provide the material conditions for a decent life to a broad class of Americans.

We are the murder and prison capital of the world, and still people clamor to come to this country, so we enact harsh new laws to keep them out. I watch this and I can't help but think that evolution is a cruel mistress. We're just clumsy at adapting to the pressures evident and obvious in the world around us. Chaos? It's as American as apple pie!


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