Bozelko column: The pandemic’s acceptable statistics
Columns share an author's personal perspective.
Recently more and more people have indicated their willingness to shave off a couple thousand souls to open the economy.
Some carrying signs with Patrick Henry’s "Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death," protesters in California, Florida, Idaho, Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia approve of the compromise of losing lives to gain income. As Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) said in a USA Today op-ed calling on President Donald Trump to open the economy last month: "death is an unavoidable part of life."
This way of thinking isn’t totally without value. It’s pure utilitarianism - the political philosophy that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number. It recognizes that governance is a series of trade offs.
Somehow utilitarianism never trickles down to justice reform. Maybe it should.
Out on a weekend furlough through a program offered by Massachusetts’ Department of Correction, William "Willie" Horton broke into Clifford and Angela Barnes’ home and stabbed him and raped her. Horton had already been convicted of murder.
Between 1972, when the furlough program was established, to 1988 when Horton’s story torpedoed then-Gov. Michael S. Dukakis’s presidential bid, 10,835 inmates had participated in weekend furloughs; 428 of them escaped and 219 returned late. Only one of them - Horton himself - committed another violent crime when furloughed.
About 6% of the Massachusetts inmates in the furlough program didn’t follow the rules. Nine one thousandths of a percent committed a violent crime.
It was long ago, so the beneficial effects of the furlough program were never officially quantified, but we can assume that those 10,188 inmates who abided by the rules and their families probably gained from the program. Children could talk to and touch their parents outside a prison visiting room. Others likely started their reentry early; "temporary absences" from carceral settings drag down the chance of post-prison unemployment by about 33%.
Very few people will argue with a 94% success rate for any government venture and that’s what the Massachusetts program had. I’d definitely roll the dice on a 0.00009% chance that someone could get hurt on a plan I choose to implement. But the number of furlough programs dropped after the Willie Horton scandal which, by utilitarian standards, wasn’t a scandal at all.
We still resist utilitarian thinking in criminal justice. Shockingly enough, no one knows the exact number of people released under The FIRST STEP Act, the federal prison reform law enacted in late December 2018. We know the law has relieved as many as 4,500 people of their sentences.
Of those 4,500-plus, one committed a murder and killed a man named Troy Pine. That’s a failure rate of only 0.0002%. But to many, the FIRST STEP Act is an unreasonable threat to public safety even though, according to a tweet from President Trump, the law will save "billions of dollars." Can you live without Troy Pine if millions of people pay less taxes? Tucker Carlson can’t. Perhaps that’s to his credit.
Sometimes utilitarianism hits home. It’s been well established that releasing people from custody will reduce the spread of COVID-19. In fact, decarceration can prevent as many as 100,000 deaths nationwide according to a study commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union and released on April 23.
The pandemic’s pace and potential for infection have prevented anyone from cobbling together how many prisoners have been freed but the Prison Policy Initiative found at least 65 jurisdictions nationwide that have implemented some strategy to reduce density inside facilities.
In all of that activity, there have been two reported instances of recidivism where both defendants are still presumed innocent; a homicide in Florida and a home invasion in Utah. In fact, crime has gone down during stay at home orders.
But what’s a little heartache for two families if yours - and millions of others’ - can dodge a deadly case of COVID-19? It seems like Fox News Host Jeanine Pirro would prefer that you die in order to keep those inmates inside.
I can’t justify utilitarian guidance on all policies and I won’t diminish the harm wrought by homicides and violent crime; victims and their families deserve better.
But if lost lives are just the price of doing business - that’s the quarantine protesters’ logic - I don’t see why the same thinking shouldn’t apply to justice reform. More people benefit from it than lose, even if they lose their lives.
Utilitarian calculations lead us to all sorts of unpalatable conclusions and work best when we assume that we won’t be in the sacrificial populations. Many don’t want to perish so someone else can proceed. As one of Willie Horton’s victims, Clifford Barnes, asked a New York Times reporter: ''Whoever said I was an acceptable statistic?''
It’s a good question and one that the protesters avoid because, to them, utilitarian approaches to policy are defensible only when they take the liberty and leave the death for someone else.