Comment of the Day: “Another “Great Stupid” Milestone: Mayor Adams’ Plan To Stop Shoplifting”

An April 28 post on “Homeroom,” the official blog of the Department of Education (ED) called on schools to remove the criminal background question from admissions. The post exhorted “institutions across the country” to “re-examine their admissions and student service policies and holistically determine how they can better serve and support current and formerly incarcerated students.” We call on you to ban the box,” it concluded.

“Ban the box” refers to a campaign started by the civil rights group “All of Us or None” in 2004. “The campaign challenges the stereotypes of people with conviction histories by asking employers to choose their best candidates based on job skills and qualifications, not past convictions,” the campaign’s website explains. The fallacy of that characterization should be apparent: it assumes that a criminal conviction doesn’t reveal anything about an individual’s character, ethics, trustworthiness or values, as if committing a crime is just something that happens to people, like catching the flu. On the other side of the argument is the principle that a citizen can “pay his or her debt to society,” and once that debt is paid, the metaphorical slate is cleared.

Ryan Harkins wrestles with these issues in his Comment of the Day on the post, “Another “Great Stupid” Milestone: Mayor Adams’ Plan To Stop Shoplifting”:


One thing that seems to be a common theme in decriminalization is the notion that people will just do the right thing if their situations weren’t dire. If people are shoplifting, it isn’t because they think they deserve stuff for free, or get a thrill out of thieving, or think theft is no big deal. No, they have to be shoplifting because that is the only way to acquire what they need. If they can just be shown there are alternatives, if they can just be instructed in the right behavior, and perhaps even the circumstances that is forcing them to steal are mitigated, that’s the true means of decreasing crime. Surely the last thing we want to do is give someone a black mark that will just make his circumstances worse and thereby drive him into even more crime, because then he really doesn’t have any choice but to shoplift. Who would give him the time of day if people knew he had a criminal record?

Of course this policy ignores human tendency towards wrongdoing. Like or not, we have to really struggle to do the right thing, and one of the great aspects of law is that it helps guide us and incentivizes us to do the right thing, because the cost of doing the wrong thing is worse. We know the law is not going to stop all crimes, and some criminals will get away with their behavior and never face punishment for it. But by and large, the law restrains our worst proclivities and makes it so that we can have a functional society. I could wax eloquent for pages on original sin, but that’s actually not what I find most interesting at the moment here.

There are members of my family with criminal records, and I have witnessed how hard it can be to overcome a criminal conviction. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s a certain political party that tends to view all criminals as irredeemable and continue to place egregious obstacles in the way of felons who are legitimately trying to put their lives back together. I’ve also heard numerous anecdotes from officers working at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins about how so many inmates go into prison as relatively decent folk, and after several years of incarceration, leave the prison system hardened, jaded, and more likely to commit another crime, and probably a violent one, at that. I don’t know the actual statistics, though I suppose I should take the time to find them out. A quick Google search shows a series of studies, articles, opinions, and the like that at least claim that prison time can actually increase recidivism rates among felons.

So one of the great questions is how do you balance make sure that criminal activity is sufficiently deterred (again, through both the probability of being caught, and sufficiently severe penalties), and that criminals are not so worse off from their convictions that they cannot successfully reenter society? I’ve seen some small programs geared toward helping inmates learn a trade or get a degree, so that when they emerge from prison they can be equipped for finding a job, but those seem to be most successful when there are businesses that partner with the prisons. For the rest, job applications always ask if the applicant has been convicted of a felony, and many businesses will conduct a background check that usually looks backward for seven years. What this means is that many convicts have to endure years of struggling to find any job that will take then, and usually at a far lower wage than they had been making previously, and that strain is psychologically burdensome. I know, people who did the crime must do the time. They have to endure the consequences of their actions. Trust me, as a Catholic who believes very much in the need to perform penance for ones sins, criminals need the harsh reality to help detach them from further wrongdoing. But is there a truly a point where the punishment and stigma overall has the opposite effect, and they drive many criminals back into criminal behavior?

I believe there need to be more programs to help criminals learn to walk the straight and narrow, and I think jails and prisons need to be readjusted to have a greater emphasis on rehabilitation. That all requires taxpayers to pay into that, but I think there should be a demonstrable benefit, that if the proper programs are in place and significantly reduce recidivism rates, then it should cost the taxpayer less overall. However, that being said, I’m not sure how, in this paradigm, to keep penalty for breaking the law sufficiently painful to be a useful deterrent. If one knows that one could commit a crime, and end up with job training and a potential career after prison, that might actually encourage crime. But I do believe that the Left’s continual drive to decriminalize everything will certainly encourage more crime, because at that point, why not shoplift? There’s no risk to it anymore.

9 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Another “Great Stupid” Milestone: Mayor Adams’ Plan To Stop Shoplifting”

  1. I attribute much of the modern world’s madness to the constant drumbeat of one of the longest term of progressive mythos. The stance that all people are inherently good, unless they are forced by outside forces – poverty, racism, poor education, inequality, etc – to commit evil deeds. There are the occasional outliers, but by and large, the vast majority of people are good. Solve the outside problems, and humanity can revert to its natural, utopian state. (A bit of a side note, but I also hear the same people wishing we could just coexist with nature, in harmony. To which I can only conclude that they don’t know a lick about nature, either.)

    If they genuinely hold onto that core tenet, then each new problem they identify is merely one they uncover in their ceaseless quest to literally save the world. I used to wonder how people who believed that lived with the near-constant sense of dissapointment they must feel when faced with evidence to the contrary. I have, however, learned that they don’t, because they close their eyes and ears to it, or rationalize it as mere evidence that they need to fight harder to overcome the nearly demonic level of oppression the world faces. There is no human out there who cannot be redeemed (with the possible recently discovered exception of Donald Trump) with the proper combination of acceptance, love, support, and education. And if you don’t agree, then you just need to be properly educated until you understand what the rest of the world knows. (Again, telling me they don’t know much about the rest of the world, either.)

    I don’t wholly disagree with them, either. Those outside forces are powerful, and can have major effects on a person’s life. Education – proper education, trying on how to think – is a literal game changer. But you also have to leave room for the fact that humans are just as capable of being total rat bastards as they are saints. Not all the time – but the option is open to all of them, all the time. And so we learn to struggle upwards, to learn from our mistakes, and improve ourselves, knowing that you always have the option to take the low road, and refusing yourself the pleasure of it. Most of the time. Hopefully.

    • Aaron
      If we start with the assumption that people in general are inherently neither good nor bad but instead are calculating, we can begin to devise solutions to criminal behavior whether the act is a poor person shoplifting or a rich person engaged in human trafficking or fraud. A poor person with little to lose, other than his liberty, has an incentive to victimize others if the environmental conditions inculcate the value of always having to be a winner or stronger than others. The same is true for the child born with the silver spoon in his mouth who believes that he is better than others and deserves that which should be his. For the rich person, we reinforce this thinking when we allow them to be treated differently in sentencing because of their standing in the community. This is a version of the Kings Pass. Conversely, the adult with the public defender gets a harsher sentence for a similar crime and that reinforces the belief that the system is inherently unfair to people of his skin tone or economic status.

      In my estimation, most crimes are committed because the perpetrator weighs the costs and benefits of the act. Sure, there are some acts that arise out of the heat of the moment, but most do not.

      To get to fewer people incarcerated we need to increase the opportunity costs of jail. This does not mean harsher sentences only; it means that we need to change the cost benefit tradeoff scheme to equilibrate the pain of the punishment across all socioeconomic as well as working to increase the potential benefits of being a productive law-abiding citizen. Unfortunately we have far too many charlatans telling the young that they are perpetually oppressed and are mired in systemic economic retardation that will require their assistance to mitigate the harshness of the oppression that is a permanent fixture of our society.

  2. I’ve not spent time in prison, and don’t believe I ever will, BUT…

    YouTube is an incredible place, and between that and watching things like Nat Geo’s Drugs, Inc., you can get a feel for how things will go.

    There is (or was) a YouTube channel of a guy named Badger, spent time in the California penal system, went in for a low level offense, burglary or something, and wound up doing 20 or 25 years (he killed an inmate that was a pedophile).

    In the prison culture, apparently especially in California, you don’t get a choice for some things, or you’ll be the victim. And as you watch, you’ll be amazed at how sophisticated the system of prison culture is. And very powerful (for obvious reasons).

    As I’ve gone down the rabbit hole, watching half dozen or so different ex cons over a year or so, you see prison does change some, but as often as not it’s a mindset from where one grows up. Inner city black culture is a prime example. Add youth, testosterone, and a culture that encourages the lifestyle, I really don’t see much hope, and not sure any program will do much unless it happens in youth and prior to involvement with the system. I think, as with most things, it starts at home. From the occasional sports star who credits a tough mom, to my friend/ acquaintance Todd, who was only one of two in his neighborhood group who wasn’t in gangs because of that.

    And as you follow the stories, some never change, or want to, but the ones that do are typically those who are older and that realize life is too short. I don’t know there’s much of a chance to institutionalize that.

  3. If you want to change the school to prison pipeline you have to eliminate those who inculcate the idea in the young that they must fight for everything and that they have no choice but to fight because others are out to take something from them that they should be rightfully entitled to.
    If you believe that lawlessness is merely a means to fight the system and that it imposes very low opportunity costs then breaking the law is a rational even being based on misguided assumptions.

  4. “Surely the last thing we want to do is give someone a black mark that will just make his circumstances worse…”

    The “last thing” I want to do is let criminals escape justice and continue to reoffend without meaningful consequences. The criminals give themselves the “black mark” by their criminal conduct, it isn’t conferred or forced on them by “we.” In my state and many others, offenders can have any misdemeanor conviction and many low-level felonies expunged after serving their sentences. Only the most serious convictions carry a permanent, state sanctioned and well-earned “black mark” on their records.

    The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. During my career I tracked many, many offenders in their criminal careers from juvenile delinquency into adult criminality (in some cases to the second and third generation). These individuals all had myriad opportunities in both the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems to choose different paths, but most chose to continue committing crimes and to add “black marks” to their record. We called them “frequent fliers” and saw many of them follow that course to the bitter end. The onus is justly on the offender to prove his or her worth to society by a repudiation of their criminality and the assumption of personal and civic responsibility. This takes time. One can’t just walk out the prison door and declare, “Restart!” like a kid playing a video game and realistically expect the world to immediately forget about what one did to earn that prison sentence.

    In my county, it is not necessary for anyone to steal in order to eat or feed their family. Many of our bigger churches (over 150 have a membership of 200 or more) and a couple of community non-profits operate food banks that will feed anyone in need, including or small homeless population. The city and county operate a community transportation service that busses low-income folks around the community for free. There are abundant jobs available for anyone who wants to work, with or without a criminal record.

    I do believe in rehabilitation. I have a friend from childhood who, through a series of bad choices, became a cocaine addict back in the late 80s. Like me, he was in is early 30s. (“Old enough to know better,” as my dad would say.) He was from a good family, had a good upbringing and was on a successful career path in business management when his drug use got the best of him. He subsequently began selling small amounts of cocaine to finance his habit and, predictably, was caught in a DEA sting operation. He plead guilty and was sentence to two years in a federal minimum-security facility in Alabama.

    While serving his time, he went through rehab for his coke addiction, quit smoking tobacco, rekindled his Christian faith, and studied management. Once released, he moved in with his aging mother back in our community and took a job as a forklift operator in an industrial warehouse. I first spoke to him about his misadventures about six months after his release when I bumped into him at a local supermarket. He seemed very ashamed of his mistakes, especially in light of my own career choice. He told me right then that he was determined to build a better life. He knew he had a lot to prove to family, friends and the community to which he had returned. I told him I wished him all the best and offered my continuing friendship. He reconnected with his wife and children (with whom he had become estranged during his coke addiction) and began to rebuild his life. He became a fixture at his kids’ school events and extracurricular sports activities. I’m sure he dealt with skepticism from many, but he never complained about it.

    Within a year he had worked his way up to supervisor in the warehouse and within three years he was running the whole place. He eventually became a partner in a new and successful regional logistics company. He went back to school in his 40s and got his MBA. Now retired from business, he operates his family farm, is an elder in his church and active in community affairs. His children are grown and have nearly grown children of their own. We stay in touch online and I see him every few weeks here and there, and always look forward to our conversations. He lives about two miles away from me and I drive past his place every time I go to my church. In his front yard, visible through the trees from the road, is a white 40-foot flagpole flying a big U. S. flag. I always smile when I see that.

    I’m sure that long-time residents in the community remember what he did nearly forty years ago, but I don’t know of anyone who holds it against him given what he has done with his life since then. I haven’t heard it even mentioned in decades. His is the best example I know of someone who took responsibility for his criminal conduct, paid the price and took advantage of the opportunity to change course and choose a better direction for his life. Many others in similar situations did not do so, and I have known more than a few of those as well.

    • That’s an awesome story, Jim. The perspectives that you, Steve-O, and Chris have all shared have been spectacular, and I’ve found them to be inspiring, sobering, and edifying.

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