Conservatives Don’t Get It


I have written dozens of commentaries about crime and criminal justice for more than 15 years, having posted some of these on my web site recently (see “Collected Essays”). During this time I have received a lot of feedback – mostly very positive.  On occasion, however, I will get a sort of “knee-jerk” response from the right side of the political spectrum.  Usually, they engage in ad hominem attacks, without pointing out any errors of fact or logic, often merely stating that what I had written was typical of the “loony left” or “liberal crap.” The general tone of many letters reveal that they either did not fully understand what I was saying or interpreted it in a way that fits their conservative mindset.  Here is why I think conservatives fail to understand what I and others on the left of the political spectrum have been saying about crime and justice for years.

Conservatives like to describe the legal system (especially the police) as representing the “thin blue line” between “order” and “anarchy” (a simplistic dichotomy).  In one of my recent commentaries, printed in the Las Vegas Review-Journal in June, 2004 (see “Surprise, surprise, county jail filled to capacity” on my web site) I used the metaphor of the “wild west” and the “forts” built to keep out the “invading hordes” of Native Americans.  According to this line of reasoning there’s nothing you can do but continue to wait for the next attack and hope that in the meantime more reinforcements will come (like waiting for a hurricane or tornado to come).  Currently, there is a request by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for more money to hire more cops; next you will probably hear pleas for more jail space.  Concerning more cops, the same old argument is being advanced about Las Vegas not having enough police officers per capita (it is 1.69 per 1,000 residents, below the national average of about 2.2).  But this ratio is irrelevant and has no bearing on the crime rate, as numerous studies have shown. I once wrote a commentary on this subject pointing out that some cities with a lower per capita figure have a lower crime rate, while some with a higher figure have a higher crime rate (see Collected Essays on my web site, under the heading of  Police & Civil Rights).

            To begin with, we must recognize that America is the most punitive country in the world, save for some Third World countries.  We send more people to prison than any other country and for longer periods of time (yet conservatives constantly complain about “lenient” sentences), and we also execute more people than any other country. The ultimate source for this, it seems to me, can be found in the conservative philosophy that has become so dominant in this country.  At the heart of this philosophy is a simplistic view of the world, a world divided into rigid categories of “good” and “evil.”  Behind this world view is a view of the family that can be described as the traditional nuclear family with the father in control as the major breadwinner.  There is, under this system, what George Lakoff (in his book Moral Politics) calls this a “strict father morality,” which is based in part on the belief that in order to become a “good” and “moral” person a child must learn to obey the rules and respect authority.  Proper behavior is taught through the use or threat of punishment.  Within such a system “the exercise of authority is itself moral; that is, it is moral to reward obedience and punish disobedience.”

According to this view, this system of rewards and punishments has a higher purpose operating here, namely, that in order to survive in a dangerous world children must learn discipline and build character.  Punishment, according to this philosophy, is the only way to become a self-disciplined and moral person.  Being successful requires becoming self-disciplined.  More importantly, rewarding someone who has not earned it by developing self-discipline is immoral. This is why conservatives are constantly complaining about various forms of welfare, affirmative action, lenient punishments and the like, for they see this as rewarding deviance, laziness, etc. 

Within the world view of conservatives, humans choose their own fates, since they have free will.  “If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” is a favorite line.  People freely choose to commit crime and must therefore suffer the consequences. Conservatives might argue that the black man who was beaten repeatedly by a police officer following a car chase in Los Angeles recently deserved his fate (as did Rodney King), for he chose to steal that car.

A couple of “letters to the editor” printed in the Los Angeles Times recently illustrate this conservative mindset.  These two letters were in response to a commentary written by Michael Sokolove (the author of “The Ticket Out: Darryl Strawberry and the Boys of Crenshaw”).  The commentary (“Putting a Face on Three-Strikes Injustice,” August 23, 2004) focused on the case of a man named Carl Quinton Jones, currently doing time in Folsom State Prison.  Carl was part of a Crenshaw High School baseball team in the early 1980s that featured two future major leaguers, including Darryl Strawberry (the subject of Sokolove’s book). In fact, almost all of Carl’s teammates got a shot at pro ball, except Carl.  His latest crime was breaking into that same high school and this was his “third strike.” 

The judge in Carl’s case gave him the mandatory sentence under the “Three Strikes” law: 25 years to life.  He was only 34 years old when the sentence was handed down.  He will be first eligible for parole in 2019, at the age of 58.

Sokolove was trying to understand why Carl got into so much trouble.  What went wrong after high school and why did he break into his alma mater?  Sokolove says that Crenshaw High was the last place he found success and “I have wondered if he was looking for something he left behind: a sense of purpose and pride.”

Conservatives apparently don’t want to explore the reasons why people commit crime.  A letter writer responding to my commentary (“Surprise, surprise, county jail filled to capacity”) said it best when he suggested that why people commit crime is of a “magnitude less important than is being protected from those who cannot or will not live by the rules that a society must have in order to avoid anarchy.”  Two letters responding to Sokolove’s probing essay into the causes of Carl’s behavior drew a response almost exactly like the letter writer commenting on my essay. 

One letter writer said of Sokolove’s commentary: “What part of ‘Don’t commit felonies’ doesn’t Michael Sokolove understand?  He writes a sob story about some burglar…How many times does society need to tell these thieves and crooks that such conduct is unacceptable?  That the burglar wasn’t armed and entered someone else’s house when no one was home holds no matter to me, nor the thousands of other Californians who are fed up with lawbreakers.”  He then makes a statement that typifies conservative attitudes, noting that he is 64 years old and has never broken into anyone’s home and that he has managed to go through life without having to commit a felony.  Finally, he says: “Twenty-five to life? Fine with me.”   

The second letter writer expressed the same emotions, saying that Carl was caught and convicted and did not get the message not to do that again.  Noting that the final strike “is always the one that the apologists regard as the cruelest, the writer wonders why after two strikes one would not change his behavior and quit doing it.  Noting that while Sokolove “wishes that Jones was not sentenced to 25 years in prison…I wish Jones had not committed any crimes, or at least stopped violating our rights and freedoms after his second conviction.”

What these writers, and conservatives in general, do not understand, is that we are not being protected very well by having the criminal justice system engage in the processing of a multitude of minor offenses and “victimless crimes” like drug use.  Today about $205 billion of our tax dollars are spent fighting crime (plus an estimated $38 billion on the “drug war” plus at least another $15 billion on private security), in contrast to about $10 billion 30 years ago, when the overall crime rate was roughly the same as it is today. During the same period of time the size of the prison system has grown five-fold, mostly because of a sharp increase in drug convictions. 

More importantly, however, is the failure to ask the most elementary question, one that a 2-year-old child would ask: “Why?”  Why do some people commit crime?  Why do some continue to commit crime, even after being caught, convicted and sentenced to prison?  Pretend for a moment that crime is a disease.  Imagine scientists and medical doctors not caring one bit about why people succumb to various diseases and hence cease looking for cures (e.g., new drug protocols).  To fail to look carefully at the behavior of the thousands of Carls of the world, to pretend that your life experiences are just like everyone else’s, to fail to take the position of “there but for the grace of social circumstances go I” and indeed to not even care about why something is happening (as expressed by each of these letter writers) but just to want to, in effect, shut the barn door after the horses ran out, is the ultimate in burying our heads in the proverbial sand and guaranteeing that the behavior we are so fearful of continues.  We lock up one Carl Jones for 25+ years and someone else takes his place. And we don’t care why they are doing what they are doing?  This pretty much summarizes the conservative approach to crime: just lock them up and they will “learn their lesson.”  After all, I would certainly learn my lesson!  Such an attitude is the ultimate in ethnocentrism: judging others using my own life, my own values, attitudes, beliefs, etc. as a measuring rod.  These letter-writers would have told Carl Jones to “just say no” but in doing so they “say no” to the most basic principles of human behavior noted by psychologists and sociologists for about 150 years.

Public opinion polls continue to show that we are a frightened nation as the fear of crime is as high, if not higher, than ever.  But, according to conservatives, the answer is to add more cops and put more people in jail.  Imagine stockholders at an annual meeting of their company being told these numbers and yet hearing from the board of directors that they planned to continue to do the same, only more.


© 2004 by Randall G. Shelden. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.