Leftist Denver Post columnist Ian Silverii offers a remarkably succinct summary of the typical Progressive view on crime. He writes:
“One worldview suggests that there are very bad, evil people out there, and we need to catch them and lock them up and throw away the key. If we do that enough times, we’ll have rid society of all of the bad apples and voila, no more crime. Another worldview, that I generally refer to as reality, says that crime is largely a symptom of society’s choices, and a lagging indicator of the consequences of a longtime lack of investment in health care, education, and economic opportunity for those without privilege.”
In other words, crime, in Silverii’s view, is caused by not electing enough Progressive Democrats to implement Progressive policies. This is comparable to the view espoused by another Colorado leftist, Quentin Young, which I reviewed in a recent column.
Silverii doesn’t go as far as those who excuse violent criminal behavior, such as in the 1981 Oingo Boingo song, “Only a Lad.” After a punk shoots a woman in the leg while stealing her radio, she declines to blame him, saying, “You really can’t blame him. Society made him. He’s our responsibility. He really couldn’t help it. He didn’t want to do it. He’s underprivileged and abused.”
Some people do hold the “throw away the key” view that Silverii describes. But many other people recognize both that criminals generally are responsible for their behavior and that we need serious criminal justice reform that often involves less incarceration.
The economist Alex Tabarrok, for example, argues persuasively that long prison sentences usually don’t offer much deterrence because criminals are not sufficiently forward looking for sentences to matter. Tabarrok argues that “the United States is underpoliced and overprisoned.” He writes, “Optimal punishments are quick, clear, and consistent and because of that, need not be harsh” in most cases.
There is something to the view that some crime is partly caused by economic circumstances. For example, when government prohibits various drugs, runs many urban schools of abysmal quality, and creates barriers to employment such as protectionist licensing, it is no surprise when some kids and young adults living in distressed neighborhoods join violent drug-dealing gangs.
However, such problems often are caused by too much Progressivism, not by too little. Progressives are the ones who initiated drug prohibition (although many Progressives today oppose it), who champion teacher-union power and oppose school choice, who promote family-destroying welfare policies, and who push for a hyper-regulated economy that stifles economic opportunity.
One strange thing about Silverii’s remarks is that he obviously does believe that “there are very bad, evil people out there” who are driven to crime by their bad choices and not by economic distress.
Take, for example, the domestic terrorists who violently assaulted the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Obviously the problem here is not that these people lacked adequate resources or government subsidies; many of them were financially well-off. Silverii has no problem holding those criminals to account. Recently he Tweeted, “Shame on anyone both-sidesing the deadly insurrection at the capitol on January 6, 2021. I cannot think of a single thing less patriotic than pretending that the Republic didn’t very nearly collapse that day and that one party has made it their mission to paper over it forever.”
Or take the misogynistic murderer who killed five people in and around Denver and badly injured Lakewood officer Ashley Ferris before she heroically took him down. Does anyone deny that the perpetrator was a “very bad” and “evil” person who, had he lived, would have deserved life behind bars? This is a guy who had fantasized in print “about an assassin clad in all black barging into a 6th Avenue tattoo parlor and fatally shooting tattoo artists and their clients,” as the Colorado Sun reports.
Here is how I would describe the basic world views regarding crime. One side holds that people generally are responsible for their choices and actions, although a given case can involve mitigating factors and contributing causes. The other side holds that people basically are not responsible for their choices and actions but instead are buffeted about by forces beyond their control. This view usually amounts to a rationalization of criminal behavior. “He really couldn’t help it!”
The responsibility view rightly goes hand-in-hand with the view that most criminals are capable of self-reform and should be afforded that opportunity, that draconian criminal punishments are unjust and harmful, that people with strong social-support networks are less likely to fall into crime, and that America’s criminal justice system very often fails to achieve justice or safety. I hope that to achieve sensible reforms in this area we can put aside petty partisan divides.
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