A Quality of Mercy

Don jonesThere was an excellent article in yesterday’s nytimes about Philadelphia youths who were given life sentences under cruel and aggressively punitive DA Lynne Abraham, and who have now had their sentences reduced under the more enlightened leadership of Larry Krasner.

We’re talking about people who were clearly guilty of their crimes, not wrongly convicted, so there has been pushback from families of some of the victims, although others have been more understanding.

What jumped out at me though was an interesting statistic:

Crucially, the researchers found that child lifers’ release had a negligible effect on public safety. Seven years after they started coming home, the rearrest rate for Philadelphia’s child lifers hovers around 5 percent. …  As of early this year, only three of the city’s child lifers who were rearrested have been convicted (for marijuana possession, contempt and robbery in the third degree), according to the Montclair State researchers.
For Mr. Krasner, these numbers reveal as a lie the idea that some people are so incapable of change that they should never be offered a shot at it. “It was always wrong to believe that people are either saints or they’re sinners,” Mr. Krasner said.

Of course, Republicans have never let the facts get in the way of their yammering, so they’ve been spreading their usual bullshit that liberal DA’s are way too lenient on criminals and public safety is suffering as a result, and the weak-minded (like some of my old high school classmates, alas) believe them unthinkingly.

But it got me to wondering about when we should take into consideration the recidivism rate when considering modifying especially cruel sentences. Clearly if we know with 100% certainty that someone will repeat the crimes that put them behind bars in the first place, then it makes no sense to release them.

And also, clearly, I think, in the current situation where a mere 5% are rearrested and for relatively minor infractions, that makes it more than worthwhile to continue to pursue lightening the sentences.

But there’s a big gap between those two data points, and where would a sensible person draw the line?

And something else that I would consider. Perhaps the very act of incarcerating those teenagers into the prison system at such an early age was what converted someone who could have been saved into someone who could not.

I don’t have answers, these are just things that I think about. I’m glad that Philadelphia currently has a District Attorney who thinks deeply about these matters and isn’t so quick to push the punish for life button.

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