Friday, February 12, 2010

Ignorance of Human Nature Is Criminal

The problem of prison overcrowding is not going away anytime soon. If anything, it probably will get worse because government ignores human nature when enacting laws.

Moses began with 10 laws. Since then, governments have written 10 zillion laws. In the beginning, it was easy for all people to comprehend the prohibition against coveting thy neighbor's donkey. But increasingly, laws have become more complex and sometimes almost impossible to obey.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently declared carbon dioxide a pollutant. If you breathe, you pollute the atmosphere; you are a lawbreaker. If past is prologue, the next law will be: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's carbon credits. But you will covet thy neighbor's carbon credits given the alternative.

Most people would never rob a bank. Banks are a safe place to keep money because of this common trait, not because of federal and state laws against bank robbery.

Jaywalking is a misdemeanor in every city, but only because architects and engineers ignore pedestrian habits and design streets and building lots in rectangles. Humans triangulate and will jaywalk as surely as they breathe.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not declared swine unclean, the agency nevertheless writes dietary laws. Trans fat is now "unclean."

There are so many laws, a citizen cannot help but be a lawbreaker. We have gone beyond unlawfully removing mattress tags. For example, if the EPA monitored the chemicals that you routinely pour down your sink, you'd probably be in jail by year's end.

During the last century, laws controlling alcohol and drug use mushroomed. Not surprisingly, incarcerations for violating those laws also have mushroomed. This was entirely predictable.

In 1899, Thorstein Veblen wrote "The Theory of the Leisure Class" and had this to say about drinking and drug use in the chapter titled "Conspicuous Consumption": "Drunkenness and the other pathological consequences of the free use of [intoxicating beverages and narcotics] therefore tend in their turn to become honorific, as being a mark [...] of the superior status of those who are able to afford the indulgence."

In 1899, the free use of narcotics was considered an indulgence, a pleasure enjoyed by the leisure class as a measure of their status. So what caused drug cases to clog court calendars a century later?

Every law ever written to control the consumption of intoxicating beverages and narcotics has had the opposite effect.

As Veblen explains, restricting stimulants and making them more expensive only increases the common man's desire to consume them.

We will always have to live with crimes of passion. Neither law nor any threat of jail is going to dissuade a jealous husband in a moment of passion from shooting his wife's lover.

There are, of course, criminals who need to be locked up forever. Pathological killers fit this category. They cannot be reformed, at least not with our present understanding of how the mind works. But does it make sense to lock up the jealous husband in a maximum-security prison that should be reserved for pathological criminals?

According to a Pew Center report last year, 1 percent of American adults are behind bars. And 7.3 million adults (one of every 31) are in the penal system (in jail, on parole or on probation.)

In their zeal to enact more and more punitive laws, legislators have guaranteed that prisons will be overfilled. The courts have abetted the lawmakers admirably; our robed judges meekly complain as they hand out mandatory sentences. When you replace "let the punishment fit the crime" with rigid sentencing guidelines, is it any wonder why we can't build prisons fast enough?

Government always thinks it can solve problems by demanding more, not less. In this case, it wants more police, more lawyers, more laws, more courts, more prisons, more guards and more time behind bars.

I am most disturbed by politicians who proudly crow that they have appropriated funds to build a new prison and then tell us that new prisons are economic development projects. Prisons, they gloat, create construction jobs in the short run and correctional jobs for the long term. Hence, prisons are a business model.

This is how far we have fallen. In a nation founded on the principles of individual liberty, democracy and capitalism, we thirst to lock people in cages and have the audacity to call it economic development.

How pathetic is that?