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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Smart Bombs: Incarceration wave hits U.S.

In debating the price and necessity of jails (see the opposite page), it helps to know the national context. With the spending surge on criminal justice since the 1990s, you’d think we’re in the midst of a perpetual crime wave.

But that isn’t true. It’s more accurate to say that actual crime has failed to keep pace with the fear of crime. In 2008, the United States took the lead worldwide in the total number and percentage of the population that it puts behind bars, whether it’s a prison or a jail.

More than one in 100 adults are incarcerated, and about half of them committed nonviolent crimes. The rise in the incarceration rate is directly related to tougher sentencing laws passed on state and federal levels. And this crackdown is directly related to its popularity. It’s not coincidental that “Law and Order” and other shows like it dominate TV ratings.

Fans of tougher crime laws can point to the rising incarceration rate and the falling crime rate and brag that it works. It’s more complicated than that, but if that’s how they feel, then they shouldn’t be troubled about how much it costs to sustain this imprisonment frenzy. Over the past 20 years, inflation-adjusted spending by states on corrections has increased by 127 percent, while spending on higher education crept up 21 percent, according to the Washington Post.

But this tradeoff of higher tuition for lower crime rates isn’t necessary. Alternative sentencing and supervision and drug and mental health courts are all promising options for nonviolent offenders. These diversions are being used more often as federal, state and local officials witness just how much criminal justice robs their budgets.

Now they just have to figure out a way to get the public to tune in.

Law aids lawlessness. Here’s a fun fact to toss into the maelstrom of immigration debates: Arizona’s crime rate has dropped while the number of illegal immigrants has risen. In fact, crime has dropped faster in that border state than nationwide since the 1990s. For instance, the rate of property crimes has plunged 43 percent since 1995 compared with 30 percent nationwide, according to the Los Angeles Times.

One possible explanation is that victims of crimes by illegal immigrants are usually other immigrants, and so the crimes may go unreported. And as Phoenix police Chief John Harris has noted, the new anti-immigration law makes it even more perilous for those victims to contact law enforcement.

So that’s good news for the illegal immigrants who commit crimes and bad news for the illegal immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding.

unknown unKnowns. The attorney for Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. has requested the suppression of any evidence that Otto Zehm had not committed a crime before that tragic confrontation four years ago because Thompson could not have known that, but he thinks it’s important to include records of Zehm’s mental illness, even though Thompson could not have known that either.

The last time I was this confused, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was holding forth about the war:

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

In granting the city and Thompson’s attorney the right to obtain Zehm’s medical records back in March, U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle wrote in part: “Officer Thompson is entitled to offer evidence – including information which he was unaware [of] at the time of the confrontation – as long as the evidence tends to make his version of the confrontation more probable.”

It will be interesting to see what Zehm’s side is entitled to offer when it comes to unknown unknowns.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at or at (509) 459-5026.
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