Monday, October 5, 2015

Counting Crow

How to calculate the potential damage caused by longer prison sentences versus the risk of more street crime is a thorny moral and policy question. Those more inclined to weight the second over the first may well be wrong, especially in these relatively safe times. But does that make them complicit in a Jim Crow system—that is, racists?
Kay Hymowitz "The Breakdown of the Black Family"
This, to me, is one of the problems with our continued use of the term "Jim Crow" to talk about racial politics and the racial impacts of policy. The original Jim Crow was an intentional program to marginalize and disenfranchise (among other things) Black people in America. And when we talk about things today as being a continuation of Jim Crow or "the new" Jim Crow, that assumption of intent comes with it, even when it may not be there - and that allows writers like Hymowitz to attack the idea by looking for evidence that the proponents of today's policies are not the overt, dedicated racists that put the original policies in place.

And that conversation often pulls us away from the original point of questioning a lot of policies in the first place - is the policy doing what we want it to do? Hymowitz notes the "incapacitation effect" of keeping people in jail - if people are in jail, they can't commit more crimes (against people who aren't themselves in jail, anyway). But is simply keeping all criminals in jail longer the only way to accomplish this? If two-thirds of violent criminals who are re-arrested are pulled in for non-violent offenses, is there a way that we can keep the other third locked away, while mitigating the damage to the persons, families and communities of the remainder?

Speaking of things in terms of "Jim Crow" doesn't help us answer that question. And neither do the knee-jerk, defensive responses to the reference.

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