Tough on crime? At what price?

2013-02-09T07:00:00Z Tough on crime? At what price?By Susan Estrich, columnist Coos Bay World
February 09, 2013 7:00 am  • 

Forty years after he was convicted for his involvement in two murders committed by Charles Manson, a California parole board has found that Bruce Davis is suitable for parole.

Early on, Davis claimed he was simply a bystander. A jury didn't agree.

Since then, he has acknowledged shared responsibility. He has also been a model prisoner. He became a born-again Christian. He earned a master's degree and a doctorate in the philosophy of religion. He ministered to other prisoners.

Is that enough?

If the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate or incapacitate dangerous offenders for our protection, then Davis is a safe bet. Recidivism rates are the lowest for older offenders.

I'm not afraid of Bruce Davis.

On the other hand, I hardly think he has any 'right" to freedom. He got what he deserved.

The harder question is what do we deserve.

Given the popularity of mandatory minimums for drug offenses and three-strikes-and-you're-out laws, it's not surprising that America's prison population is aging. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of inmates 55 and older grew almost seven times as fast as the prison population as a whole. Estimates predict that by 2030, a third of all prisoners will be over 55.

Keeping older prisoners locked up beyond the point where they are dangerous to anyone is, in a word, expensive. Very. They not only get room and board, but also medical care, which they do have a right to. The cost is by various estimates, a minimum of twice the cost to incarcerate a younger offender, even though there are greater security concerns with younger offenders.

Davis is, in many respects, an easier case than most. Life without parole is hardly an unjust punishment for two murders.

But many of those in prison are there for drug offenses or for multiple non-homicide offenses that they are unlikely to repeat. Why are we spending a fortune to keep them incarcerated? How does that help us?

The political debate about crime for much of the past 30 years has been dominated by fear of politicians that they will be perceived as anything less than 'tough on crime." In the wake of terrible events, who wants to be the one standing there saying no to a three-strikes law, no matter how poorly it is drafted?

But the chickens are coming home to roost, and if you'll pardon me, they are not spring chickens. The consequences of treating crime as an issue of values and not policy, as we have, are not only the explosion of the prison population, but also the graying of it. At some point, we are going to have to face the hard questions, if not in the notorious case of Bruce Davis, then in hundreds more where the criminal is less notorious and the case for continued incarceration much weaker.

Copyright 2015 Coos Bay World. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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