Swimming Upstream



For many years now critics have warned state legislators about the fiscal crisis that awaits those who keep insisting on a “get tough” approach to crime.  With rare exceptions, state legislators have ignored these warnings.  As usual legislators have been more concerned about getting elected and then getting re-elected by trying not to sound “soft” on crime.  So they continue along the same road, leading nowhere, spending money needed for other things (the proposed budget for the Nevada prison system is close to $2 billion).


As readers of this column know, I have been one of those critics.  I have consistently berated politicians – not just in Nevada but in general – for their nearsightedness and ignorance.  The most recent was the failure to inform citizens about the need to reform some of our drug laws, specifically those pertaining to marijuana.  Question 7 went down to defeat last November thanks largely to an uninformed public reacting to scare tactics of doom and gloom if pot was treated like alcohol.   


I don’t know what our state legislators read when it comes to issues related to crime and justice.  Do they even sample some of the vast literature on crime and criminal justice, readily available on the Internet?  A check of the Bureau of Justice Statistics web site (http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/) would be educational, as would a check of the web site for the National Institute of Corrections (http://nicic.org/) or Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (http://ojjdp.ncjrs.org/). Each of these web sites offer excellent resources and come with plenty of recommendations, based upon the latest research on “what works.” There are also plenty of non-governmental web sites that offer plenty of options for legislators to consider, such as: Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (www.cjcj.org), Justice Policy Institute (http://www.justicepolicy.org/), Sentencing Project (http://www.sentencingproject.org/) and Vera Institute (http://www.vera.org/), plus many devoted specifically to the drug war; one of my favorites is one called “drug facts” (http://www.drugwarfacts.org/).   


There are plenty of scholars that conduct research on these issues and most of their publications are readily available (some on the above web sites).  There are more than 3,000 criminal justice and criminology programs at colleges and universities all over the country that have on their faculty very capable scholars.  We have them here at UNLV, including some new people in my own department!


By this time the reader may be asking something like: “Ok, wise guy, you seem to have all the answers!  What do you recommend the Nevada legislature do about the current crisis within our prison system?”  Ok, I will provide an answer. Before I do this, however, I must issue a warning.  In a column like this one, where there is a word limit, neither I nor anyone else can provide a concise answer to such a complex issue.  There is no simple panacea, no “magic bullet” than can instantly solve problems such as this.  I will try, however.


I often use a parable when I write about this and so here it is.


Imagine a large river with a high waterfall.  At the bottom of this waterfall hundreds of people are working frantically trying to save those who have fallen into the river and have fallen down the waterfall, many of them drowning.  As the people along the shore are trying to rescue as many as possible one individual looks up and sees a seemingly never-ending stream of people falling down the waterfall and he begins to run upstream.  One of his fellow rescuers hollers “Where are you going?  There are so many people that need help here.”  To which the man replied, “I’m going upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river.” 


The people falling into the stream can be viewed as both victims and offenders.  At the bottom of the stream is the criminal justice system, responding to crimes that have already occurred.  This represents our standard “reactive” strategy to crime.


Upstream you find the underlying causes of crime – the reasons why we have so much crime in the first place. 


The simple answer – the “magic bullet” so to speak – is that we need to go upstream.  And going upstream includes not just searching for underlying original causes but reasons why we have such a high recidivism rate, since a good proportion of those heading to prison have been there before.


© 2007 by Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.