Why We Struggle to Accept the Dual Nature of Addicted Criminal Offenders

An elderly man is found unconscious at the wheel of his idling car in the median strip of a busy interstate. Miraculously, he struck no other vehicle when he careered off the highway. When roused by the police, he blows a blood alcohol level of .18, leading to his third DUI arrest.

A young meth-addicted woman thinks her reflection in a store window is watching her, so she hurls a brick at it. A terrified customer calls the police, who arrest her for shattering the window and spraying the store’s customers with glass shards.

In some people’s eyes, the millions of people like the above examples who come into contact with the criminal justice system each year are dangerous monsters who should be sent away for long prison terms. Others view these same people as helpless and hapless, innocent victims both of a disease and a cruel criminal justice system. From this it follows that the legal system should back off entirely and let health care professionals offer needed treatment.

These two camps argue with each other endlessly, usually in debates about whether society should respond to addicted offenders with punishment OR treatment, whether intoxicated violence should result in accountability and monitoring OR immediate forgiveness and therapeutic support, and whether substance dependence is a public health OR a public safety issue. My own view is that both sides lose every one of these debates, because they have framed the question is a way that makes both permissible answers wrong. People addicted to alcohol and other drugs do indeed suffer terribly; they also do physical and emotional harm to millions of other people each year. Trying to decide whether this population needs help OR whether the rest of us need protection from them is as sensible as trying to decide whether to provide your child love OR limits.

I have long wondered why many intelligent people — even people who have seen the population of interest up close — are so strongly committed to seeing addicted offenders either as villains or victims rather than as a mélange of both. Cognitive psychology research suggests that it may have something to do with the impact of emotion on perception and reasoning. Continue Reading…

The Strangely Underreported Decline in the Incarceration Rate

I hereby submit my nomination for the most underreported public policy story of the past year: The continuing decline in the number of Americans who are behind bars or on probation/parole. Both the change itself and low level of attention it has garnered are worthy of reflection.

At the time of President Obama’s inauguration, the incarceration rate in the United States had been rising every single year since the mid 1970s. The relentless growth in the proportion of Americans behind bars had persisted through good economic times and bad, Republican and Democratic Presidents, and countless changes in state and local politics around the country.

If a public policy trend with that much momentum had even slowed significantly, it would have been merited attention, but something far more remarkable occurred: The incarceration rate and the number of people under correctional supervision (i.e., including people on probation/parole) declined for three years in a row. At the end of 2011, the proportion of people under correctional supervision returned to a level not seen since the end of the Clinton Administration.

You’d think this would be big news, but it’s gone largely unnoticed. Indeed, if you google on news articles and op-eds about incarceration that have appeared during the Obama Administration, you will find precious few that mention or even seem aware of the change. John Tierney dropped some breadcrumbs in his recent NYT article, which I hope means he will delve into the decline in incarceration as his series of articles on criminal justice progresses. There’s a great deal a good journalist could illuminate for the public, for example which policies and politics are producing the change and how it plays out on the ground.

Why hasn’t the shrinkage of the correctional population received more attention already? Three forces are likely at play. Continue Reading…