The Long View 2004-08-16: New Jersey; Antichrist; Prison; Kill Bill 2

John's occasional comments on New Jersey politics were always fascinating to me. New Jersey is very much another world to this native of the American West. Even our scandals seems different.

A recurring theme of John's was that the increasing harshness of criminal sentencing was an inevitable consequence of the development of American law after Miranda v. Arizona, along with other civil rights cases of the 1960s, made it very difficult to continue to police effectively. The ensuing increase in the crime rate left only one legal option: longer sentences for the convicted. This worked to decrease the crime rate to a bearable level, but I don't think John ever thought that the combination of robust constitutional rights for defendants plus long mandatory sentences and large prison populations was really an optimal solution for the United States. He did seem to think it was the only possible one, given our politics.


New Jersey; Antichrist; Prison; Kill Bill 2

 

My recollection of Governor McGreevey's resignation announcement on August 12 is a false memory. I saw the press conference live. That afternoon I had gone down the Shore (Jersey-speak for "gone to the beach"), but on arriving I happened to turn on CNN. I know perfectly well that CNN did not play the theme from the old Twilight Zone series as the Governor rushed to explain that he was gay in order to cover up some jaw-dropping malefaction yet to be fully revealed. Nonetheless, that is exactly how I remember the broadcast. I fully expected the camera to cut away to commentary by Rod Serling.

At the philosophical level, the apocalyptic dysfunction of New Jersey's political culture was well addressed by Peggy Noonan's column of May 13, Bada Bing? Bada Boom. The revelation of the reasons for McGreevey's choice of aides adds nothing to our understanding of a state government that runs on credit-card debt and that believes turning the state into a center of fetal stem-cell research is forward thinking. Rather, the gay element sheds light on a national distortion: even in New Jersey, the sort of gross abuse of patronage involved in the McGreevey affair would have created a scandal long ago, were it not for the immunity that a homosexual connection now confers. Something similar is true across a range of issues, and even the elites are getting as sick of it, as they did of militant feminism by the mid-1990s. However, this is not the story that will pop the bubble. Not yet.

Anyone in need of an updated list of recent political scandals in New Jersey should see John Fund's column, Louisiana North: Why New Jersey is a pit of corruption. I have a question about this this historical aside, however:

New Jersey's political corruption has been legendary since the days of the late Mayor Frank Hague, who ran Jersey City for 30 years with such an iron fist that he told federal officials "I am the law."

The version I heard of that story, and I live in Jersey City, is that Mayor Hague said "I am the law" to a judge in Juvenile Court, where the mayor was appearing as a character witness. The defendant, the son of a Hague supporter, had committed enough minor offences that the judge said the law required the boy to go to state juvenile prison, called "the Farm." The mayor thought otherwise.

Let me point out that New Jersey corruption does not mean that you have to bribe bureaucrats to perform ordinary official functions, or that businesses must routinely pay extortion to stay in business. The typical New Jersey political scandal involves getting permission for new real estate development, or the awarding of contracts from the government to private enterprises. Ordinary citizens can get through life without encountering any of this unpleasantness. That is why it has continued for so long.

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As a student of eschatology, you must imagine my delight in discovering last week that Catholics for Kerry had picked up a suggestion that President Bush is Antichrist. At any rate, they had linked to a story from a Canadian site, Catholic New Times, which claims that John Paul II suspects that the president may be Antichrist, and the pope regrets that he is too old to deal with the challenge adequately. The Catholics for Kerry link was current as of last week, by the way, but the report in question dates from May 18, 2003.

Meanwhile, Catholics for Kerry pointed out that Jerome R. Corsi, co-author with John E. O'Neill of the leading anti-Kerry broadside, Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, had some very harsh things to say about the Catholic Church in the wake of the recent priest scandals.

Entertaining as all this is, may I point out that President Bush looks much less like Antichrist than like the Emperor of the Last Days? You will be hearing more about this characterization if Bush presides over a peace settlement that includes Jerusalem.

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Something else you might be hearing more about is the movement to reduce the size of America's prison population. Crime rates in the US have fallen dramatically in the past 15 years, and 25% of all the prisoners in the world are in the US. These statistics are not unrelated. However, as Jim Holt reported in The New York Times Magazine ("Decarcerate?" August 15):

Yet there is a movement afoot today, albeit a tiny one, that aspires to get rid of prisons altogether. The members of this movement call themselves ''abolitionists,'' borrowing the term applied to steadfast opponents of slavery before the Civil War. Since the 80's, an international group of abolitionists -- lawyers, judges, criminologists -- has been holding conferences every few years.

Was the expansion of the prison population really responsible for the drop in crime over the last decade? Then why did states that neglected to adopt tougher sentencing rules enjoy the same improvement as those that did? Do harsher sentences deter people from committing crimes? Then why did the recidivism rate -- that is, the rate at which released prisoners commit new crimes -- actually go up during the prison-building boom?

The sense in this is that the political ploy of enacting ever hasher criminal sentences is despicable. Often, this practice involves passing new criminal laws to address the same offense. This is a particularly bad idea when Congress passes federal criminal laws for matters that are handled perfectly well at the state level. This is the sort of thing you do insteadof serious law enforcement, which involves hiring more police and deploying them in a way that makes them part of the communities they patrol. The certainty of punishment is far more important than its severity.

In New York City, by the end of the 1980s, the laws on the books could not be made any harsher. As a novelty, the authorities adopted new strategies, notably "community policing" and the "Broken Window Theory." The results were spectacularly successful. Then, of course, prison populations grew. What else could happen?

The problem with the Decarceration Movement is that it seems aimed at the concept of punishment itself:

The idea of making an offender suffer for his crime can be traced to...''blood vengeance''...But is this justice? There is increasing evidence that the most violent criminals are often driven by forces beyond their control. Because of damage to the frontal lobes of their brains caused by birth complications, accidents or brutal childhood beatings, they simply can't contain their aggressive impulses; compared with the rest of us, they live life on a neurological hair trigger. Clearly, society needs to protect itself from these people. But does it need to punish them?

One can only repeat that you hang one man for the same reason you give another a medal: both are based on the moral intuition of desert. If you abandon that, then there is no reason why the innocent should not be made to suffer, if that is convenient. A particularly foolish notion is to try to replace justice with applied neurology. That leads to a world in which people with unsatisfactory diagnoses are incarcerated automatically, whether they have done anything criminal or not.

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Over the weekend, I viewed the film Kill Bill, Volume 2. Anyone can make a Kung Fu Western, but perhaps only Quentin Tarantino can make a Kung Fu Western that sounds like My Dinner with Andre. My only caveat is that all this wit might better be used to make movies that don't suggest the human race deserves to be extinct.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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