My Censored Reply to the Sheriff

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As a former resident of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and as one whose family still lives there, I daily read the website The Chattanoogan, which gives brief snippets of local news, along with a wide range of opinion, sent in by readers. A while back, I saw the following opinion piece by Sheriff Tim Gobble of Bradley County, which is the next county east of Hamilton County, where Chattanooga is located.

Believing that Sheriff Gobble was in error in many of his observations, I wrote the following response and sent it to the Chattanoogan, but the owner/editor decided not to post it. Thus, I would like to share it with LRC readers.

"Incarcerated in America"

by Sheriff Tim Gobble, April 2, 2009

According to a report released by the Pew Center a while back, one out of every 100 adult Americans are (sic) incarcerated. The report stated that the government spent less than $11 billion on corrections in 1986; whereas in 2006, the government spent more than $49 billion. That’s an increase of over $38 billion.

The prison population first passed the two million mark in 2002, when the ratio of adults incarcerated was one in 142. From information gathered state-by-state, the Pew Center found that 2,319,258 adults were incarcerated in jails or prisons at the beginning of last year. That figure is higher than any other country in the world. There are several reasons for this huge increase.

One is a lack of education. In Tennessee, three out of 10 high school students do not graduate with their class. High school dropouts are almost four times more likely to be arrested, and more than eight times more likely to be incarcerated than those who do graduate. Dropouts earn less, have fewer opportunities for advancement, pay fewer taxes, are more likely to collect welfare and are more likely to turn to a life of crime.

If the Tennessee graduation rate could be increased by even 10 percent, statistics show it would cut the rate of murders and assaults in this state by 20 percent. It would also save taxpayers an estimated $365 million each year. Of that amount, $265 million would be saved simply from the reduction in crime that would result.

Another reason for the increase in prison population is a lack of opportunity. Obviously, in today’s world, the less education a person has, the less opportunity they have. If a poorly educated person has served a prison sentence, that further limits opportunity.

However, limited opportunity does not mean no opportunity. I have seen too many former inmates turn their lives around to believe limited opportunity automatically means defeat. People make mistakes, they make bad choices. The jail experience can be enough motivation for some to change and a build productive, law-abiding life. For any former inmate who determines not to live on the wrong side of the law, there are any number of resources and social agencies available to help them make the transition to productivity.

A third reason for recidivism can simply be that illegal activity is all a person knows. Much too often, alcoholics can produce more alcoholics, drug users can produce more drug users and violence produces more violence. If a child grows up in a dysfunctional environment where illegal activity is obvious to them, they will be more likely to become swept up in the same cycle. Breaking that cycle is difficult at best and downright impossible for some.

There are others reasons, of course, that might explain why so many adults in the U.S. are incarcerated: the population has increased, many people want money and leisure without working for it, society has become increasingly more secular, and movies, music, television and video games have become increasingly more violent.

Personally, I think a lack of education is probably the biggest reason so many people run afoul of the law. The BCSO is actively involved in a program called "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids." This organization is made up of sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors, law enforcement leaders and survivors of violent crime. According to Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, 70 percent of criminals incarcerated in jails and prisons never graduated from high school. This establishes a clear correlation between the school dropout rate and crime.

Bradley County is fortunate to have high quality schools and teachers, as well as Head Start, Pre K and other early education programs. These programs have proven to increase the chances that at-risk children will adapt well to school, keep up with other students, graduate from high school, possibly attend college and build productive, law-abiding lives for themselves and their own children.

For more information about the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, visit us online at: www.bradleysheriff.com. You can also contact us by calling (423) 728 7300, or writing to: Bradley County Justice Center, 2290 Blythe Ave., SE, Cleveland TN 37311. If you would like to reach me directly, email: comments@bradleysheriff.com.

My Reply

With all due respect, Sheriff Gobble, the main reason for the increase in American incarceration rates is the Drug War.  More than half of U.S. inmates are non-violent drug offenders, and with the “justice” system literally addicted to Drug War money, I see no end in sight.  When Prohibition was the Law of the Land eight decades ago, a tremendous amount of violence was associated with the production, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages.  For example, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 was about who would be able to sell alcoholic beverages in that particular area of Chicago.

The vast amount of violence associated with drugs in this country does not come with actual use, but rather the production, transportation, and sale of illegal drugs.  Furthermore the Drug War, which means that substances that people take (which the government does not want them to take) will be produced and sold by criminals, also contributes to more violence by the police.  More and more innocent people are being killed, wounded, or physically assaulted by police in the escalating number of no-knock drug raids. 

Furthermore, the relationship between police and the rest of the community has become a much more “us versus them” relationship, as the Drug War has led to your purchasing more and more military equipment, and the general militarizing of local and state police forces around the country.  Now, because you receive huge amounts of money both in federal grants and from the sale of property taken in drug raids (not to mention all of the impounded cash you receive from taking it from people who “might” have been able to buy drugs with that cash), there is no way you can give up this war.  You are as addicted to this money and property as are the worst of drug addicts, but the difference is that drug addicts harm only themselves, while the police today are harming more and more innocent people.

I believe you need to face the fact that “to protect and serve” no longer fits with the police.  When does anyone feel “protected” by police officers?  Whenever I see a cop behind me, I know that he has the power to shake me down for hundreds of dollars if he so chooses.  The police officer who stopped the NFL player in Dallas recently was correct when he told the player that he could make his life very difficult.

The tragedy here is that Americans have given young police officers, many of whom are just out of their teens, huge amounts of authority, and many of them simply have become bullies with guns and badges with a license to kill.  You yourself know what police culture in this country has become, and much of it is due to the fact that you and your fellow officers are addicted to Drug War money and the power that comes with it.

So, when the police stop acting like an occupying army and start serving a community once again (instead of shaking people down, as is the case now), perhaps some of us might be willing to listen to your lectures about incarceration in this country.  For now, all I can say is, “Physician, heal thyself.”

April 10, 2009

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services.

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