Doing the prison math - We need to imprison more offenders

published: Sunday | August 8, 2004

Kevin O'Brien Chang, Contributor

IN 1980, the homicide rate in the United States reached an all time high of 10.7 per 100,000, having doubled in 15 years.

There was much 'woe is us' hand wringing. Could nothing be done to stem this seemingly inexorable rise?

Well there are many things I don't like about the U.S. but I admire its 'can do' spirit. America doesn't just moan and groan about problems, it acts.

The response to the record murder rate was tougher legislation including plea bargaining, mandatory sentencing, and 'three strikes and you're out' laws ­ a third conviction meaning a life sentence. Its incarceration rate soared and homicide rate plummeted.

There are differing opinions on why the American murder rate almost halved between 1990 and 2000. Some attribute it to a strong economy, changing demographics, 'broken window' policies, New York-style 'innovative' policing strategies, gun control laws and increased capital punishment.

But in his statistical analysis, Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s, Steven D. Levitt found that none of these had much effect. He says the biggest reason the U.S. murder rate fell by 42 per cent over the decade was increased incarceration.


In 1997 the Jamaican murder count reached a hitherto unimaginable 1,038, a 150 per cent increase over 1988.

'We can't continue like this cried' the radio chat hosts and newspaper headlines. Talking heads trotted out the usual causes of homicide suspects ­ poverty, political tribalism, drugs, poor education and fatherlessness.

The Government made noises about bringing back capital punishment. And a new 'elite crime fighting squad' was created.

But no real concrete crime cutting measures were taken and the homicide count continued to rise.

We can expect another NATO ­ 'no action, talk only' ­ national breast beating extravaganza come January, as the 2001 murder record of 1,139 will almost certainly be broken this year.

Why do Jamaicans continue to behave as if problems can be solved merely by publicly shouting platitudes and clichés at each other?

You would think that being so close to the U.S. and having seen how effectively it has tackled its crime problem that we would try similar measures.


Of course America is an extreme example, since it has the world's highest incarceration rate. The U.S. has about five per cent of the world's population and about 25 per cent of its prisoners.

Nearly 6.9 million people ­ roughly 3.2 per cent of the adult population ­ are in prison or on probation or parole in 'the land of the free', and minorities suffer disproportionately.

Some 41 per cent of those on parole last year were black and 40 per cent white, yet blacks make up only about 10 per cent of the population.

Still there is not much outcry about any of this in the U.S. even among blacks, and no politician who is seen as 'soft on crime' has any chance of being elected there. Apparently American society deems increased imprisonment a rational ­ and perhaps unavoidable ­ trade-off for greater freedom from fear.

By any standards, Jamaica imprisons far less people than its situation seems to warrant. The accompany chart provides a comparison with some other English-speaking countries (see chart).

Even a doubling would only bring us in line with Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago (T&T).

All the other countries have substantially increased their incarceration rates since 1992, while Jamaica's has actually fallen at a time when violent crime here is soaring.

Anthony Harriott et al in Crime and Development: The Jamaican Experience computes an annual crime rate index (weighted) of murder 40 per cent, shooting 25 per cent, robbery 10 per cent, rape and carnal abuse 25 per cent, with 1990 being 100.

This CRI went from 101 in 1992 to 131 in 2001. Can it be logical for per capita prison capacity to decrease at the same time that serious crimes increase by 30 per cent?

And this year's CRI may well surpass 1980's record of 182. No wonder police complain that hardened criminals are regularly let out of prison early to make space for new convicts.

And repeat offenders are known to commit a disproportionate number ­ some claim a majority ­ of crimes.

It's not unreasonable to suppose that the 20-80 rule (i.e 20 per cent of customers generate 80 per cent of activity) applies in criminal as well as business matters.


Getting tough means more than putting more people in jail. It also means getting more efficient. The intimidation of potential witnesses is our judicial system's greatest weakness.

So let's abolish preliminary trials, which not only put fear in the hearts of testifiers but make court cases excessively costly and time consuming.

We also need to give every judge a laptop, computerise fingerprint and ballistic databases, and create a deportee monitoring system. And we must have international standard crime scene investigation units.

Still, as the song says, let's start at the very beginning. Which is keeping repeat offenders behind bars.

Naturally, the authorities will complain that 'We don't have the resources to build extra prisons'.

Well, they have enough money to spend billions on Highway 2000. The latest 'cost overrun' of US$20 million on the North Coast leg ­ not to mention the missing hundreds of millions in NetServ and Operation Pride ­ could have gone a long way towards expanding our prison system.


But why blame the Government for doing a pathetic job in tackling crime when the populace doesn't seem to care?

When crime soars in other places people take to the streets. In Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, last year over 50,000 people demonstrated against crime.

In Trinidad earlier this year, Brian Lara led an anti-crime march around the Savannah.

With current trends, Jamaica's murder rate this year will probably be three times what it was in 1988 and may well end up the highest in the world.

Yet I have never heard anyone talk of organising a 'take back our streets' rally. It's not ideas or resources we lack but political will, and that must ultimately come from the Jamaican people.

Crime will only be controlled when those in charge know that if they don't take the necessary measures they will be voted out. But as they say, if patient don't care, doctor don't care.

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