Sunday, December 14, 2008

Why is the solution to every social problem more cops, courts and punishments?

Our buddy Charles Kuffner has a couple of posts up at Off the Kuff that, following up on our discussion of Rep. Solomon Ortiz Jr.'s graffiti enhancement bill, made me think this morning about how Democrats (really both parties, but I'm picking on Kuff today) need to revamp their methods to stop using the justice system to address social problems.

If the only tool you own is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, the saying goes. And thus for too long a bipartisan tool shortage has encouraged reformers of all stripes, and from all points on the political spectrum, to reach first for solutions involving police, courts, fines and punishments instead of other less coercive strategies.

Kuff offers up two workaday posts on subjects that even he says should be noncontroversial - opposition to smoking and use of child booster seats in parents' cars. Neither are bad goals in and of themselves. Nearly everyone agrees smoking is bad for you, and few parents will dispute the benefit of booster seats when the case is made for them.

Yet in both instances Kuff suggests using the criminal justice system to impose by force a policy with which most could be convinced to comply on its merits if the case were forthrightly made.

Discouraging smoking and encouraging use of booster seats are meritorious things, but why are fines and criminal enforcement the only way to promote those public goods? I don't think they are. Perhaps this is a case where the road to hell is paved with good intentions?

We are living in an absurdist period of overcriminalization spurred largely by using the justice system to solve social problems that would better be resolved through provision of public services, expanded healthcare access, business regulation, public education and a variety of other means which are too often ignored. Texas has labeled 2,324 separate acts "felonies" (including eleven involving oysters), plus thousands more misdemeanors and many more local, municipal ordinances enforced with Class C fines.

That's not the only possible way to address these problems, though frequently it's the only approach the government and members of both political parties bring forward. At the Legislature, that's because new crimes and punishments are falsely claimed to have zero budget impact, while other options would require lawmakers to weigh the relative importance of social problems against each other in the budget process.

Neither of Kuff's public policy goals inherently require using criminal law enforcement. A smoking ban on restaurants, e.g., to me is an issue for a zoning commission, not the police. (I know Houston doesn't have one, but that's partially because they deal with stuff like this via the cops and homeowners associations instead of code enforcers.)

And with booster seats, why the need for a criminal law and a fine? Is there an assumption by proponents that some parents don't love their children and won't do what's best for them unless coerced through threat of punishment? Perhaps people stopped without a car seat for their five-year-old should simply be given one and sent, safer, on their way?

Chuck's motives are pure and I don't doubt the world would be a better place if more kids had booster seats and fewer people were smokers. But the means of perfecting our society cannot be only criminal punishment of those who fail to comply with what the political class thinks is best for them. That's where Kuff and I part ways on these topics.

12 comments:

Charles Kuffner said...

In re: booster seats, I don't think it's a question of parental love but of parental ignorance. I mean, it's not been that long since the state outlawed the practice of letting children ride in the back of a pickup truck. You'd think no one would need to be told that's a really dumb thing to do, but that wasn't the case. The effect of that ignorance is ultimately shared by society as a whole - medical costs, lost productivity, etc. As such, I see the need for society to take action to mitigate against that. I wish that weren't the case, but it is.

BTW, I didn't see any details of Zaffirini's bill in that story, but I would certainly support a provision that paid for booster seats for those who needed them but couldn't afford them. I believe we have a similar thing for child safety seats. But as with child safety seats, I'm okay with there being a consequence for not using them. I respect your point, and as you know I agree in general that we overcriminalize in this state. But on this matter I think there's a sufficient justification for the penalty.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Charles, if the problem is "ignorance" then why is the solution a criminal penalty instead of "education"?

You and I agree there is a "need for society to take action to mitigate against" ignorance, but I don't see why it then follows that criminal penalties are necessarily justified or useful for achieving that goal. Few people read the statutes - if "ignorance" is the problem, passing a criminal law is simply not a good way to overcome it.

Anonymous said...

I don't have stats for it, but I think smoking has drastically declined in the last couple of decades. Through education, not coercion.

Ron in Houston said...

Grits

I am simply impressed. I never knew there were so many felonious things dealing with oysters.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Even more impressive, Ron, is that of the eleven oyster-related felonies, none of them are sex offenses. ;)

Suzette Watkins said...

Interesting post. I agree that we can't and aren't solving our social problems with the courts & jails. However, all the things you list need to cost us less tax dollars in the long run. I say we need to start paying attention to local political races such as City Council candidates and demand a change in how our tax dollars are spent and quit expecting the taxpayers to foot ALL bills to ALL problems! If we aren't accomplishing any reforming of lives in the way punish, then we are wasting our tax dollars.

Anonymous said...

I'm not his mother, I promise, but I just had to stop and thank God for Scott Henson when I read this.

"Charles, if the problem is "ignorance" then why is the solution a criminal penalty instead of "education"?

You and I agree there is a "need for society to take action to mitigate against" ignorance, but I don't see why it then follows that criminal penalties are necessarily justified or useful for achieving that goal. Few people read the statutes - if "ignorance" is the problem, passing a criminal law is simply not a good way to overcome it."

Education. Respect. True information on the airwaves and in the media.

Something better and beyond "hitting them" anywhere.

rage said...

Even more impressive, Ron, is that of the eleven oyster-related felonies, none of them are sex offenses. ;)

Check the laws on bearded clams. And the Canterbury Tales.

Anonymous said...

The one-way drive of Texas criminal justice policy is about to come home to haunt us. The message can be found in the movie "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas". Texas is hell bent on creating an irrevocable criminal class, members of which are reduced to being less than human. The government's only role with respect to this group is to seek, in every way possible, their ultimate destruction. Membership in the class is determined by the arbitrary whim of law enforcers and prosecutors. The message in the movie is this: Not only is such a social philosophy immoral, it is not practical and not possible to impose without damaging ourselves. Watch the movie and weigh the costs.

Anonymous said...

How about those Houston police? They saw a father playing with his son and another friend - they had a call for a disturbance (however, it was not for the father and son) - they took it upon themselves to harrass the father and cuff him in front of his son - the crime (asking for the policeman's name). They also harrassed the other friend threatening to file an interference charge on him because he wanted the keys to his friends car. The policeman also taunted the young man to hit him to which the young guy replied: I am not that stupid. Neither of the young men had any outstanding warrants. When the person who HAD called in the domestic disturbance asked the police to please come, they replied - I'll get to you later. Then the polliceman changed his tune and was nice to the young man. In San Antonio, a young person was given $1200 worth of tickets because he could not determine how to drive through the lines of red cones (in which a person had been killed by the confusion before) - he took pictures with a throwaway camera and the judge noted WOW, your client must really have an expensive camera. He was supposed to consider himself lucky to have a $400 fine. We cannot allow the USA to become a police state.

Anonymous said...

"We cannot allow the USA to become a police state."

I'm afraid we already have.

Now, if we can, we've got to dismantle what made it that way and we'd better hurry.

Anonymous said...

I'm remembering some famous saying about those who give up their liberty for safety deserve neither.

Alas, that looks like where we are as a country. We gave up the one for the other and now we have neither.