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Thomas Sowell
Thomas Sowell
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Penny-Wise on Crime


For more than 200 years, the political left has been coming up with reasons why criminals should not be punished as much, or at all. The latest gambit in Missouri is providing judges with the costs of incarcerating the criminals they sentence.

According to the New York Times, "a three-year prison sentence would run more than $37,000 while probation would cost $6,770." For a more serious crime, where a 5-year imprisonment would cost more than $50,000, it would cost less than $9,000 for what is described as "five years of intensive probation."

This is only the latest in a long line of "alternatives to incarceration" schemes that are constantly being pushed by all sorts of clever people, not only in Missouri but across the United States and across the Atlantic, especially in Britain.

The most obvious question that is being resolutely ignored in these scientific-sounding calculations is: What is the cost of turning criminals loose? Phrases like "intensive probation" may create the illusion that criminals at large are somehow under control of the authorities but illusions are especially dangerous when it comes to crime.

Another question that ought to be obvious is: Why are we counting only the cost to the government of putting a criminal behind bars, but not the cost to the public of turning him loose?

Some may say that it is not possible to quantify the costs of the dangers and anxieties of the public when more criminals are walking the streets. That is certainly true, if you mean the full costs. But we can quantify the money costs— and just the money costs to the public vastly exceed the costs to the government of locking up criminals.

In Britain, where the "alternatives to incarceration" vogue has led to only 7 percent of convicted criminals being put behind bars, the annual cost of the prison system has been estimated at just under two billion pounds sterling. Meanwhile, the annual financial cost alone of crimes committed against the public has been an estimated sixty billion pounds sterling.

In the United States, the cost of incarcerating a criminal has been estimated as being $10,000 a year less than the cost of turning him loose.

In all these calculations we are leaving out the costs of violence, intimidation and the fears that people have for the safety of themselves and their children, not to mention the sense of helplessness and outrage when the society refuses to pay as much attention to innocent victims as they lavish on the criminals who victimize them.

These are all important costs. But it is unnecessary to take them into account, when just the money costs of turning criminals loose is enough to show what reckless nonsense is being preached to us by arrogant elites in the media, in academia and elsewhere.

Deception of the public by advocates of leniency to criminals has been institutionalized in legal practices that create the illusion of far more punishment being meted out than is actually the case. "Concurrent sentences" are one of the most blatant of these frauds.

When a criminal has been convicted of multiple crimes, having him serve his sentences for these crimes "concurrently" means that he actually serves no more time for five crimes than he would serve for whichever of those crimes has the longest sentence. In other words, the other four crimes are "on the house."

Sentences in general overstate how long the criminal will actually spend behind bars. Probation, furloughs, parole and time off for good behavior lead the list of reasons for turning a criminal loose before he serves the sentence that was announced to the public when he was convicted.

Even "life imprisonment without the possibility of parole"— often offered as a substitute for execution for first degree murder— can be misleading. There is no such thing as life imprisonment without the possibility of a liberal governor being elected, and then commuting or pardoning the murderer later on. And, of course, the murderer can commit murder again behind bars.

With all the things that liberals are willing to spend vast sums of money on, it is a little much to have them become penny-wise when it comes to keeping criminals off the streets.

To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His Web site is



2 Comments | Post Comment
Bullits are still cheap. Let them dig their own graves, stand them at one end and save transportation costs, too.
Comment: #1
Posted by: David Henricks
Wed Sep 22, 2010 5:56 AM
Subject: If I Were Black
I am sending this to you because you are more open-minded and/or reasonable than some columnists who think a discussion on race means they tell whites what we have done wrong and what we need to do to atone for our (and our ancestors') sins.
I have no way of knowing what it is really like to be born and raised Black. However, I like to think if I were Black, I would have thoughts and attitudes such as these listed below. I apologize in advance to anyone, especially my Black friends and former co-workers who might be offended. I am not trying to hit “hot button” words or topics, but am expressing my point of view in the hopes others--including Blacks--will consider these and other points of view. Conversely, maybe Blacks could write their comments to “If I were white…”
There is an old saying “Count your blessings…” I do that often and am glad my ancestors wound up in the US. The US is the best place in the world--and rather than complain about what I don't have, if I concentrate on my blessings, my attitude improves. Are too many blacks focusing on being dissatisfied instead of concentrating on the amazing opportunities? Many, many blacks are focusing on good family values and are accomplishing great things; but the headlines are often on those who are making other choices, for example rising numbers of teen pregnancies, crime, gangs, dropouts, etc. Note: I am not implying whites/Hispanics/others are perfect in these areas.
Please realize, it is very difficult to talk about race. Too often, anything someone of another race says is branded as racial instead of an attempt at honest, open dialogue. Consequently, if you use any of these thoughts in any of your articles, please do NOT use my name.


1. (A) Understand that history has happened and nothing can change it. Had there been no slavery, where would I be? Slavery was terrible but I benefited greatly from it. How many Blacks would be in the US had there been no slavery? Honestly ask myself--”Would I rather have been born in Africa than in the United States?” Realize that had I been born in Africa, the odds are I would have been much worse off. Would probably be living in true poverty, with poor or no medical treatment, with little or no education, with few freedoms, few career opportunities, few choices of any kind, few amenities (indoor plumbing, air conditioning, cell phones, television, safe drinking water and food, transportation, etc.), no safety net like welfare, no social security, etc. Would my brothers and sisters in Africa wonder how we could squander such amazing opportunities--and still be dissatisfied?
1. (B) Be against monetary reparations for slavery. Because among other reasons, Blacks of today have so greatly benefited--ultimately--from slavery that perhaps we Blacks should be paying reparations to the whites. Had there been no slavery, I would be in Africa and probably would be much, much poorer and worse off.

2. (A) Wonder, if I accept that the War Between the States was over slavery, then I must accept that thousands of whites died for my freedom--and later, many whites, up to and including today, have striven to make my life better--therefore I cannot hate all whites. (Note: Few if any Blacks hate all whites but media images seem to suggest some do.)
2. (B) Think seriously about the Confederate States of America and the blessings I subsequently received because they seceded from the Union. Had the Southern states stayed in the Union, when would there have been enough votes in Congress to pass an Amendment to the Constitution to stop slavery? Probably not for at least 20 or 50 years--who knows, but it would not have happened in the 1860s. Slavery ended, indirectly, in the 1860s because of the CSA and the War Between the States.
2. (C.) Consider displaying the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of my freedom. I would try to emulate the Christians. When Jesus was crucified on the cross, it was a symbol of defeat, death, etc. The Christians now use the cross as a sign of victory, life, etc. And if I heard the song “Dixie”, I would consider singing it as my song of freedom, victory, etc.

3. (A) Realize that a good EDUCATION is a key that can open many doors to opportunities. What if Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Obama had not gotten a good education--they would have been unknowns and would not have succeeded as well as they did. Education is a free opportunity that we Blacks dare now squander. As a student, I should behave, pay attention in class, (or as one person put it, “sit down, shut up, pay attention”), do my homework, do more than just enough to get by, make learning and an education a top priority--failing to do so squanders my birthright that others, like MLK, have worked so hard to obtain for us. Wonder what MLK would say to Black students today about squandered educational opportunities?
3. (B) If honest with myself, agree that maybe Bill Cosby was at least partially right. We Blacks have had over 40 years of equal educational opportunities, so if we are not doing better in this area, we have to accept some of the responsibility. If other Blacks can make it, why can't I? Is “Affirmative Action” an admission that I can't make it on my own--even though others have?
3. (C.) Wonder at the real reasons “failing” predominately Black schools (such as Frederick Douglas High) have such dismal records. In the past, the school was very successful in spite of all the challenges. Now many if not all the past challenges have been removed so Blacks can freely go to school and excel--their parents and the students MUST accept responsibility for the actions--or inactions. If I were Black, I believe I would excel in that school or any school because I understand the importance of education. In all honesty, we the Blacks do not need coddling, affirmative actions, any special privileges, etc.--we just need a figurative affirmative “kick in the rear”. If we fillled failing predominately Black schools with our brothers and sisters currently living in Africa, would they put us to shame with their hard working successes?
3. (D) Support my children at school functions. For example, several years ago, a Macon high school football team was playing a Warner Robins school in WR. The number of parents in the stands for Macon was less than the number of players on the field. (Haven't checked attendance numbers lately but suspect they have not improved for many Macon schools.) If Macon parents do not support something as exciting as football, they clearly won't support and make it a priority for their children to study, work hard and succeed in the academic areas. The future improvement of schools rests squarely on the STUDENTS and PARENTS--sadly, their past track record is not encouraging. ((Hopefully, this will be a challenge for improvement by students and parents.))
3. (E) Recognize that there may be some things wrong with public schools, but admit that (with few exceptions) the problem IS NOT, REPEAT NOT, TEACHERS. If we let them teach, they teach admirably. Threats of lawsuits do not help teaching. Parents supporting teachers helps education (when I was a student, often heard “if you get a spanking at school, you will get one at home“.) (Sadly, a Black elementary student told my elementary teacher wife, “my mother said I don't have to mind you white teachers.”) As a Black student, I would get the best education possible, with or without parental support--even if I happened to get a teacher I didn‘t like--in spite of every hurdle. I would work as hard as possible in school and in my job.

4. Strongly encourage all Blacks to seriously consider birth control, if financially challenged. Unwanted children are too numerous. Children we cannot afford increases our chance of being trapped in welfare and poverty.

5. Stop feeling sorry for myself for being born Black and concentrate on the amazing opportunities available in this country--a country where Blacks can become teachers, generals, congressmen, doctors, the president, a supreme court justice, leaders of industries, etc.--also a country which millions from around the world wish to call home. Wonder what percent of the people in the world outside the US want to come and live in the US--Is it as high as 70-80%?

6. Sign up to leave the US if I truly and honestly think it is so terrible to live here--I would swap places with someone from Africa who wants to come here--a win-win; I leave the US I hate and the person in Africa who wants to come to the US takes my place. (In doing so, I give up my citizenship, welfare, medicare, social security, etc.)

7. Love the US so much that I would call myself first an American, not African-American. While I might like my African heritage, I am first and foremost a citizen of the US--an American--the best place to live in the whole world.

8. Wonder if the so called “welfare state” in which many Blacks find themselves--sometimes for several generations--is partially our fault. ((Also, is there a parallel between the “welfare state” in the US and our efforts at giving aid to Africa and other third world countries. Are we taking steps to keep Africa from becoming a “welfare state”? Is our aid encouraging them to continue irresponsible behavior? Should we be strongly encouraging birth control?))

9. Wonder if almost all Blacks are embarrassed by the number of us having teen pregnancies, single parents, absent parents who dump their unwanted babies on grandma, aunties, foster parent system, or anyone who will take them while their moms and dads party, drug out, disappear, etc.? Would wonder which is worse, to have an unwanted child or to not have the child? (This is a bit too caustic: Is the concept of birth control too difficult to understand--oh, wait, I'm asking this of young men who don't understand the concept of how a belt works and who show their underwear. Speaking of showing underwear, are young Blacks who show their underwear “disrespecting” themselves?) There is a birth control device that can be implanted in females to prevent pregnancy for up to 5 years. Would encourage this be available free to all girls/women--perhaps making it mandatory for all girls at age 13 of all races. This would at least delay pregnancies until the girls are more mature.

10. (A). Be honest with myself by admitting that Blacks no longer need (or should even want) affirmative action laws and efforts, as well as discrimination laws based upon race. Channel these monies and resources into something positive and productive. To say I need these laws is to say I cannot make it on my own--that I'm not smart enough or talented enough or determined enough to do it on my own without help--that I'm second class and need a boost. If others have made it, then the opportunity is there for me and if I don't make it, maybe it isn't the system but me. After all, if a Black can become President, he/she can become anything.
10. (B) Realize there is “another minority in town”. Many Hispanics/Asians are out-working and out-performing me and will leave me in the dust if I do not give it my best.

11. Be thankful for laws and police officers because without them there is lawlessness and chaos. The laws and police enforcing the laws, helped lift us to where we Blacks are today.

12. Encourage my Black brothers and sisters to get jobs and stay off welfare--and especially work to get generations of welfare recipients off welfare. Generation after generation on welfare shows no initiative.

13. Fight drugs, crimes and gangs which give Blacks a bad image and which harm and destroy lives.

14. (Finally, and perhaps most important of all, whether Black, White, or Other) realize that the GREAT “I CHOOSE” is REAL. The choices I made/make have real-life consequences. If “I choose” to not do my best in school, maybe that is why I did not qualify to go to technical school or college and cannot find a job. If “I choose” to do drugs, maybe that is why my brain is fried and I am in jail. If “I choose” to have unprotected sex, maybe that is why I am a teenage parent with no way of supporting and raising a child. If “I choose” welfare instead of working for a living, maybe that is why I don't have a higher standard of living. Some perceive that Blacks do not work as hard as others because they can get away with it and efforts to get them to perform at the level they should, results in complaints of discrimination. If “I choose” to not give my best and work harder than my coworkers, maybe that is why I don't get promoted and they do. Etc., etc. Accept that the GREAT “I CHOOSE” is real and not blame someone/something else for my mistakes--accept responsibility.

Thank you.
Donnie Powell Warner Robins GA.
Again, I prefer that my name not be used.

Comment: #2
Posted by: Donnie Powell
Thu Sep 23, 2010 6:17 PM
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