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Too many laws, too many prisoners (economist.com)
293 points by gruseom on July 23, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 167 comments

There's one single paragraph in this entire article that addresses the root of the problem:

> In 1970 the proportion of Americans behind bars was below one in 400, compared with today’s one in 100. Since then, the voters, alarmed at a surge in violent crime, have demanded fiercer sentences. Politicians have obliged. New laws have removed from judges much of their discretion to set a sentence that takes full account of the circumstances of the offence. Since no politician wants to be tarred as soft on crime, such laws, mandating minimum sentences, are seldom softened. On the contrary, they tend to get harder.

On top of that, you also have an entrenched set of special interests who benefit from the status quo (police unions, prison guard unions, private prisons, etc.), so the pressure on politicians is from two sides.

So how do you "solve" a problem that special interests, along with a sizable majority of the voting population, have no interest whatsoever in solving?

Without a massive culture shift, you don't.

US incarceration are ridiculous and irrational. Why are European countries and Japan so different, though? They also have elected politicians and special interest groups, what’s going on there?

I think it mostly has something to do with the directness of democracy, not with a difference in opinion or mentality.

Democracy in the US is very local and direct, politicians can actually be punished by the voters for not being tough on crime. That’s not so easy in (for example) Germany. You vote predominantly for parties – the whole package – not politicians. Something as comparatively unimportant as criminal law is going to get swamped by all the other issues, hardly anybody will focus on the particular weak spots of one lowly member of parliament. That would be a waste of effort.

Moreover all decisions about the criminal law are made on the federal level, in commissions full of experts (a lot of academics: criminologists, psychologists …). There is no reason for politicians in those commissions not to follow their recommendations. Voters will hardly ever notice what they decide, it is going to get lost under all the other issues.

You can actually be successful as a German politician who has a image for being tough on crime on the very local level (in, say, a city state), but on that level you can do no more than strictly enforce the rules that already exist. That will hardly change incarceration rates, though.

You don’t need a culture shift, you need a different political system :)

Actually, the incumbency rate for the House of Representatives has been well over 90%, due to corporate financing, redrawing districts, etc.


As for Germany, it seems there's a lot more political choice, even at the top levels. Due to a greater diversity of parties, which more accurately reflects people's opinions than the US's two-party system. In my view, the US isn't particularly democratic, and anyway all of these nations have top-down "democracies."

I agree. And choice is even greater in Switzerland. You and your neighbors can even move your neighborhood to a different cantons.

These laws come from DC and the states have lost a lot of the power they had initially. The federal government had a list of powers. They call them the enumerated powers. The states had everything else.

And the citizens could leave a state if they didn't like it. A lot easier to do than leaving the country.

Which is why local laws are not really that oppressive, even if they are. But federal law is all encompassing and difficult for you to influence. They can pretty much ignore the individual and usually do, except when they need something to grandstand about.

HOAs are even more local and yet they can have some of the most restrictive regulations around. I don't think your thesis holds.

I think you misunderstand the parent post, HOAs are actually a perfect supporting example. Even the most tyrannical HOA rule isn't actually that bad, because you can just move a few blocks away to a less-strick HOA or a house with no HOA at all.

However, if a law is passed at the federal level, you're pretty much stuck with it. With local (or hyper-local like HOAs) you can vote with your feet by moving.

Is that the same in the state’s legislative bodies? I don’t know how relevant federal legislative bodies are in this discussion since criminal law is mainly a responsibility of the individual states, not the federal government.

America is a huge country, it’s not exactly surprising that you get all those effects you have on the federal level. That, at least to me, seems to be somewhat softened by a particular strong brand of federalism (in the European sense, meaning strong and independent local and state governments).

> Why are European countries and Japan so different, though?

For a Japanese person, the conviction of a crime (and the shame it brings) is much worse than the jail sentence. If you are convicted of a crime, your family usually breaks off all ties with you.

Other countries (such as Singapore or China) has laws that are more harsh - which ensures that people do not break it (e.g. execution for drug offenses instead of imprisonment). If a person receives corporal punishment for vandalism, he will quickly stop without progressing towards further crimes (or run back to the USA with his tail between his legs).

Oh no, there's no crime in Japan.


It seems to me the harsh punishment of crimes like vandalism is not so much lawfulness as it is about Asian values of group solidarity. When it comes to organized crime, or crime by officials, there's scarcely any need to hide it, since the population is so used to ignoring the misdeeds of the well-connected.

I agree with part of what you said: dishonor is the real punishment. But that's exactly why past a certain point, "getting tough" doesn't work. In the USA, it's so out of proportion now, that in many poor or ethnic minority communities in the USA, the police are perceived as oppressors, not guardians of law and order. And there's no big dishonor in going to jail for a time.

> Oh no, there's no crime in Japan.

Violent crime in Japan is ridiculously low.

> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yakuza

You know that a large percentage of the Yakuza are Korean? In any case, every country has organized crime - yet the Yakuza isn't that violent.

Japan isn't that violent - when you compare things such as murder statistics. I know, I lived in the most violent country and in Japan. Japan is a joke.

> But that's exactly why past a certain point, "getting tough" doesn't work.

The USA never had any really tough laws. I bet that if the USA starts executing major drug dealers (like Singapore), drugs would be a much smaller problem.

> In the USA, it's so out of proportion now, that in many poor or ethnic minority communities in the USA, the police are perceived as oppressors, not guardians of law and order.

The problem in the USA is that it only gets tough when it is too late (e.g. after the 3rd major offense). It should be tough on the first offense (however minor). It is much more difficult to change an established behaviour than a new behaviour - every animal trainer knows this (and it is the same with people).

In any case, the problem with certain ethnic communities is that they value crime (e.g. showing how tough you are) and idolize criminals. That is not the problem of the police - but of the communities. Idolize criminals, dress like criminals and act like criminals and you may be treated as one.

I bet that this idolization of organised crime would disappear if there were chain gangs of criminal members of the community cleaning parks, schools and toilets.

Instead criminals sit in prison doing nothing and each prison becomes a Crime University.

  Oh no, there's no crime in Japan.
He didn´t say that, nor did he imply it. Using this kind of straw man argument polarizes the discussion.

One thing to bear in mind about Japan: they put people in mental institutions rather than jails. All it takes to get a person committed against their will is the opinion of one family member and one psychiatrist. In the US, a court order is needed to hold someone against their will for longer than a few days.

Generally speaking, "troublemakers" will go to a mental hospital before going to jail. That's probably why suicides are so high in Japan as well: the mental health system is so overloaded they can't appropriately deal with real problems.

I'd question you even need to qualify your statement about perception of the police as "poor or ethnic minority communities".

My social circle is mostly educated, upper-middle class white males. Most still see police as oppressors, many have had negative experiences with police abusing power & harassing them.

Upvoted. However, a different political system would itself necessitate a cultural shift.

Sure. I was being facetious. Lowering incarceration rates in the US is probably a hard problem which would need all kinds of shifts.

If "direct democracy" was so powerful, how come they keep making laws against p2p or legalization of weed given that most people are against those laws?

"direct democracy" is really the wrong term. The US has a representative democracy, where the people generally don't vote on laws, but rather vote for politicians who vote for laws. Germany has a similar system, except according to the other poster, people vote more for political parties rather than individual politicians. You could say that the US has more "direct representationalism". In reality, representative democracy is about as undemocratic as a democracy can get.

I do not think most people are in favour of legalizing weed if by most people you mean the general population and not the teenagers.

> You don’t need a culture shift, you need a different political system :)

A culture shift is also needed. In most of Europe, being tough on crime is not a requirement for being elected.

Furthermore, judiciary usually isn't elected, which avoids judges themselves having to become tough on crime for their next mandate (though they're not immune to hierarchical pressures of course).

Germany doesn't have the kind of crime problems America has, so naturally it's not going to be a big issue.

There are many people in US prisons who wouldn’t be in jail if they did the same thing in Germany (e.g. no three strikes law or mandatory sentencing in Germany).

The prison population might still be higher without those laws because of a difference in crime rate – but not quite as high.

And if America had Germany's laws, there would be much higher crime rates. America did have soft crime laws before the 1990s, and it did have much higher crime rates. That's why the US got tough on crime and Germany didn't.

The countries just aren't comparable.

The US is still the wild west in many ways.

Before throwing our hands up in despair we should consider that some simple reforms of the prosecution system in the U.S. would make a huge difference. There are a lot of shakedowns going on in the U.S. system (it's hard to call it a justice system at this point). But a wide-ranging list of abuses of power feature prosecutors actively participating. Prosecutors in the U.S. have a lot of incentives for corruption and very few safeguards.

The problem is in the U.S. a lot of objectively unethical activities and policies are not considered unethical. A lot of horrendous official behavior passes by without people call it what it is: Corruption.

Of course it's not just prosecutors, it's amazing sometimes to see judges, lawyers, and many other public officials participating in cases in which they clearly have stake in the outcome without people calling it out with the C-word. My conjecture is just that reforming the prosecutorial system would have a big effect on the quality of the overall system and may not be as hard as some other approaches.

Regardless I've been in despair about this for a long time myself, but more recently I've started coming to believe that shifting the ethical goal posts in this country just by using a small list of very simple and objective guidelines and focusing on key centers of corruption.

Ethics are not universal, or at least are not proven to be universal. They are a social construction. It's clear, as others have said, that it's society that needs to change. How about starting by more of us being jerks in the level and ferocity with which we decry unethical behavior large and small and place our highest priority for social and political activism within the U.S. (and many other places) on that.

Another piece (brought up in the comments) that warrants investigation is the role of privatization of prisons. With that, you have private organizations lobbying the government to increase their bottom lines, and politicians get to look tough on crime as a nice bonus.

The part that scares me the most is that is may be impossible to live in the US without breaking some law. When everybody is a criminal, the state gets too much power.

It's easy to blame privitization, but large public sector unions can be just as influential. As a politican I'd be much more afraid of angering, say, the AFT than I would be of any single private company.

Just because someone you don't like is clamoring for more money doesn't mean no one was clamoring for money before.

You think the teachers' union is more powerful than any single company? that is a joke. If teachers had the power of the top dogs in the finance, pharma, defense or energy industries (to take a few obvious examples) have they'd all make 7 figures.

> You think the teachers' union is more powerful than any single company? that is a joke. If teachers had the power of the top dogs in the finance, pharma, defense or energy industries (to take a few obvious examples) have they'd all make 7 figures.

Half of CA's budget goes to education, by constitutional amendment.

What industry approaches that?

Nobody is talking about teachers. But in California the Prison Guard Union holds immense sway.

There was a superb NPR investigative piece on that maybe a year ago. I remember being shocked at the guards' union's role in creating the problem. And to think that California prisons just a generation ago were so good -- recidivism so low -- that other countries were sending delegations to find out how they did it.

For some reason it's recently become trendy to paint teachers' unions as the root of all evil on Hacker News. Who knows which think tank master-minded this particular tidbit of right-wing propaganda, but it's a story line that rings increasingly hollow the more I see it haphazardly inserted into every imaginable public policy debate.

I guess the rating of your comment reflects the result of pointing this out.

Your hypothesis isn't the only plausible one. Have you considered that more crime = more inmates, sentences aside?

First: since you go to prison after the crime, the inmate population size should be a trailing indicator of the crime rate. More serious crimes affect the prison population for a long period, since their sentences are longer.

Second: take a look at these graphs, and how dramatically they shoot up around 1965:




Demographics are a major factor in the increase you cite. A disproportionate amount of crime is caused by men in their late teens and early twenties. The Baby Boom caused a rapid increase in that, with predictable results.

Another factor is greatly improved reporting. Rape in particular used to be very poorly reported, and this has improved a lot as the social stigma against reporting it lessened. The shape long rise from the 60s to 1990 was certainly strongly affected by that.

A number of reasons exist for the recent drop in very violent crime that the murder graph shows. Demographics are surprisingly only a small part of it. Most of it was the result of public health efforts that reduced the incidence of lead poisoning. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07... for more. A much smaller factor which many have heard of was the legalization of abortion. While this has an effect, and was popularized in Freakonomics, the effect was much less than the benefit of reduced lead poisoning.

Why does the data collection only start in 1960? The fact that the rates shoot up five years after they start collecting data might just mean that for the first five years, the data collection system was just getting ramped up.

All of those graphs show peaks in the early 1990s and a decline after then. That's long enough that if the number of crimes was the main causal factor, prison numbers would be going down by now.

The issues are basically correct on both sides, however there exists the problem fact that while prison populations are - and have been on the increase - actual crime rates have been declining over the past decade plus. This is indicative that while crime has been diminishing, arrests and convictions for existing laws have been increasing disproportionately. The reason for the "peak" in the stats in the 90's is partially due to the discovery by private prison investors and private sector corporations of the federal PIECP program. This program allows partnerships between private sector companies and prison industries to use prison labor to manufacture their products or provide their services, which allows lower overhead and increased profits. In the mid 90's corporate America discovered the program and began to manipulate it. At the same time, prison numbers began to increase while the crime rate declined. This was a direct result of the realization of the amount of labor needed to fully exploit the program.To use the program to the maximum benefit, there had to be a continuous supply of manpower - whether the crime rate was holding steady or in decline.

The Freakonomics guys correlated the drop in crime in the 90's to the legalization of abortion in the 70's, and others think that the drop in crime is a byproduct of the tougher three strikes rules states have adopted. I'm just speculating, of course, but I wonder whether the internet has been a factor in the drop off. Less boredom = less crime?

Well said. And massive culture shifts are hard to get started on account of the inertia involved. However, piggy-backing on other culture shifts already in progress is easier.

This may sound overly idealistic. But a technology shift that is clear about openness and transparency of information, and which gradually supports voting in efficient, electronic ways (with checks and balances that prevent mob-like behavior) could help solve these problems. Could eventually be what solves a lot of this. Obama may be remembered not so much for being the first African American president, but the first one elected with social media. Information wants to be free and networks are fast.

How do you start a massive culture shift without a really infectious idea? you don't.

A better question, I think, is "how does something become infectious"?

An idea alone is not going to sway the masses. An idea with proper execution and backing might. Think of it like education- a great follow along would be Plato's cave. You can bring one person into the idea-out into the world- but when they go back the majority still cannot understand what they are saying. Because of this you must convince small portions of the population either by education or force so that they may spread this new knowledge.

How do you spread said idea? By using human nature as a weapon. A powerful weapon would be confirmation basis. Get the powerful to back your idea- with money, fancy words, anything- and you can get most people to follow along. The weak depend on the powerful for survival- this could be reversed, but not likely to ever happen(see uprising).

Even if you are able to infect people with your ideologies you now have the problem of, what if this idea was the wrong? Infections ideas, just as viri in nature, are hard to cure once there is an epidemic.

So your idea does not need to be infectious or catchy or even right, it just needs to be adopted. Once you establish a user base you can then use that base to your advantage in order to spread your idea.

Interesting reads. Some have nothing really to do with what I said, just allow for a better understanding of what I mean. I am all for bad ideas, because without them how would we know the good ones?

[1] http://www.prisonexp.org/ [2] http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/search/detailmini.jsp?_... [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment [4] opr.princeton.edu/papers/opr0901.pdf [5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_momentum [6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_momentum [7] http://www.entrepreneur.com/tradejournals/article/194270145.... [8] http://core.ecu.edu/psyc/wuenschk/stathelp/Dichot-Not.doc

It would solve your problem if you moved to Europe.

You say: "The voters, alarmed at at surge in violent crime ...", this can be the reason that explain more people in jail, and I think is a sound one. But this implies that more laws are not the cause but the consequence of a raise in violent crime so the title is misleading. You should say in the title: There are more people in jail because there is a rise in violent crimes and I would be happy with this.

In the United States, the problem started with the war on drugs. The increasing privatization of the prison system made crime a business opportunity, which in turn lead to more things being criminalized.


But that's not all; prison labor is now used as cheap labor to compete with foreign countries, instituting a new age of under-the-radar slavery.


The more you look at this cyclic process, the more disturbing it becomes.

Another major part of the problem is that we no longer institutionalize most of the mentally ill (also a phenomenon starting around 1960-70). Many of them become homeless, and a few commit crimes.

America has never had a working mental health infrastructure; we stopped institutionalizing people because American mental institutions in the 40s were about the most horrible things you can imagine:


I think the history of our neglect as a society of the mentally ill has little to tell us about crime and a lot to tell us about the homeless underclass in America.

To digress: I just visited DC again a couple weeks ago. You go in a public bathroom right outside the Washington Monument and there are big signs next to the sinks that say "NO BATHING". I felt ashamed.

I think the history of our neglect as a society of the mentally ill has little to tell us about crime

That makes sense if you look at one as related directly to the other or vice versa (aka mostly not), but if you look at both as symptoms of a bigger issue then it becomes readily apparent that they are highly related: Americans don't want to deal with 'undesirables'. Lock em up or make them homeless, whatever, just as long as we don't have to deal with them.

>there are big signs next to the sinks that say "NO BATHING". I felt ashamed.

Sorry, I'm not clear what you're ashamed of? That there are people that would want to wash in the sinks or that they are not allowed to?

I don't think it would be a fair description of all homeless people to say they belong to an underclass.

>Sorry, I'm not clear what you're ashamed of?

It doesn't bother you to be a citizen of a country that has allowed so many people to lose their homes that bathing in a public restroom is now a nuisance frequent enough to warrant official signage?

Wait - a "major problem" is that a "few commit crimes"?

I think the real issue is that the US has some socio-economic issues that we've as yet let unresolved: drugs (as mentioned), policing strategy, judicial/legislative strategy, welfare, education, etc. I don't think institutionalization is a major contributor.

Just because a small portion of the mentally ill commit crimes does not mean that a small portion of crimes are committed by the mentally ill.

A quick google search finds a source claiming that about 10-20% of the prison population (a few hundred thousand) are seriously mentally ill:


Beyond that, the conditions in some prisoner (esp. California's) can lead to mental illness. Talk to someone who has been in AdSeg, as an example.

It's often admitted in Europe that jails are the US substitute for European social policies.

Admitted by Americans visiting Europe, or claimed by Europeans?

Certainly observed by this African watching both continents.

> But that's not all; prison labor is now used as cheap labor to compete with foreign countries, instituting a new age of under-the-radar slavery.

This is BS IMHO. Would you rather see prisoners set free or do nothing all day?

Do you really think that a person will come out of a 6 year prison sentence (without working a day) and then start working and be a productive member of society?

In the old days in my country there was a sentence called "hard labour" - which meant that criminals got a shorter sentence and learned valuable life skills (if they were co-operative) or learned how to make big rocks smaller (if they were uncooperative).

"....prison labor is now used as cheap labor to compete with foreign countries, instituting a new age of under-the-radar slavery."

Your comment is being downvoted because if this statement is true (and you reckon it's BS), then it provides a strong incentive to lock more people up, and lock them up for longer - i.e. political and economic motives to lock people up, rather than reasons tied to justice. Reminds me of 'The Shawshank Redemption':

"Warden Norton eventually creates a scheme to use prison labor for public works, undercutting the cost of skilled labor and receiving kickbacks for it. Norton has Andy launder the money under a false identity, in exchange for allowing Andy to keep his private cell and to continue maintaining the library. Brooks, freed on parole, is unable to adjust to the outside world, and hangs himself; Andy dedicates the expanded library to him. In 1965, Tommy Williams (Gil Bellows) is incarcerated on robbery charges. He is brought into Andy and Red's circle of friends, and Andy assists him in getting his GED. Upon learning of the crime of which Andy was convicted, Tommy reveals that one of his old prison-mates, Elmo Blatch (Bill Bolender) had claimed to have committed a nearly identical murder. Norton, fearing what Andy might do if released, puts him into solitary confinement and has Tommy killed by Hadley, claiming he was an escapee."

In other words, the warden killed a prisoner who had information that would have freed the main character. The warden had the prisoner with that information killed, as he wanted the main character around as he was a former banker who was helping him to commit bank fraud.


Why does this comment keep being downvoted? I think he is making a fine point, would you rather prisoners sit around do nothing all day, or are given some work to do which improves them and improves the country in a way paying back their dues.

Seeing as there was this article which said that keeping busy makes us happy, the least the downvoters can do is state as to why prisoners should not be made to work?

If you are going to compare prison with slavery, how about starting with the one thing they have in common, they both are denied their right to liberty!

If the point is to make the men work, then pay them a fair wage. Until then, no intellectually honest person can call it anything but slavery.

> If the point is to make the men work, then pay them a fair wage.

I agree they should be paid a fair wage. They should be given a bill for their housing and their debt to society and their victims which they can pay off with their wage. The vast majority of prisoners owe society (and their victims) more than they could ever hope to earn in a lifetime.

The whole idea of being a prisoner is to take away rights of someone who have done harm to others. This is done by taking away his freedom (i.e. by locking him up in a prison cell), taking away his right to vote (in many countries) and removing his right to freedom of association.

Locking a prisoner up is not the same as kidnapping (since you make false equivalences). Since a prisoner’s time is already wasted (by locking up in a cell), that time could just as well be used for something productive.


You know what is slavery though? Forcing the taxpayer to pay for the housing and maintenance of a criminal. The taxpayer doesn’t have any say in the matter and doesn’t have a choice. Each person in jail had a choice.

The point here is that prisoners are used to fill entire factories with labor for private benefit, while taxpayers foot the bill and prisoners work without fair wage. You're turning this into a prisoner's rights issue when it isn't anything of the sort.

> used to fill entire factories with labor for private benefit, while taxpayers foot the bill and prisoners work without fair wage.

How would taxpayers foot the bill if the prisoner's wage is used to finance his stay? At worst, it would lessen the cost of his stay.

> You're turning this into a prisoner

You turned it into a prisoner's rights issue by claiming that forcing a criminal to do some actual work (like every taxpayer does) amounts to slavery. Your opposition to letting criminals work is therefore due to moral and not practical considerations.

Taxpayers foot the bill today. This is about today, not some hypothetical.

I have never claimed that forcing prisoners to work is slavery. What I did say is that forcing prisoners to work without fairly compensating them is slavery. I also do not oppose letting criminals work; I don't even know where you pulled the "moral and not practical considerations" from.

Are you reading my posts before you respond to them? Are you confusing my posts with somebody else's? What's going on here?

Exactly the point. Most prisoners today are sentenced in relation to drug crimes. A majority of those crimes are victimless, but violations of state or federal laws. As such these prisoners are without a debt to "Victims' and society becomes a de facto victim by having to divert tax dollars to their continued incarceration. Huge US Corporations are now "partnered" with prison industries throught the federal Prison Industries Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP) to use inmate labor to manufacture their products then sold to the general consumer. It is important for these corporations to maintain an available work force to fulfill their needs. While tax payers support prisoners through tax contributions, corporations take money out in profits. Visit piecp-violations.com for more information on this issue.

>But that's not all; prison labor is now used as cheap labor to compete with foreign countries, instituting a new age of under-the-radar slavery.

Oh, don't worry, those countries are fighting back, too: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/8677486.stm

Free the market, free the people, eh?

As a person with essentially libertarian views, this is a very interesting article. I may be too quick to applaud this article because it supports my own views, but I think it raises a number of legitimate concerns. In particular, I was struck by this point: In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased. This is a slope that we have been sliding down for some time. While ignorance of the law has generally been excluded as a defense in criminal cases, our system of laws is becoming so convoluted that it is almost impossible to know and understand the applicable law. Thus we are all at risk. It feels like we keep inching closer to a society where everyone is either a dependent of the state, or at risk of becoming one through regulation and/or prosecution.

With regard to mens rea, it should at the very least apply to conspiracy charges.

Yea, I would generally agree with you. The problems of the law is that it's largely made and enforced in a arbitrary and over-complicated way.

On a startup side, there is actually is a big difference between common law (e.g. Anglo) and civil law (e.g. Franco) systems - with common law being more advantageous to entrepreneurship because of the reduced risk of arbitrary laws - unlike precedence in common law systems.

PDF: http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/eblj/issues/volume1/number2/Smith.p...

But civil law more easily may degrade in a byzantine mess. Here in Italy there are more than 100,000 laws (estimated, for no one really knows, and this is just for national laws, and not including technical regulations). Which means that no one is realistically able to understand what is right and what is not. Under such a system, one lives with sort of a random fatalism.

Not just random fatalism, but also greater acceptance of the idea that individuals can pay authorities not to enforce the vast and unknowable system of laws.

Italy is not corrupt enough for this. The law is more or less applied (more or less also depending on the region) but in a random, chaotic, occasional fashion, because an uniform application is really impossible. It's a bit like the idea of sin. You shouldn't do it, but human nature is what it is. Provided you keep within certain limits.

You are much more familiar with the situation in Italy than I am. My comment was based on Codes of the Underworld (Diego Gambetta, 2009, Princeton University Press). On page 70, he says:

"The wider the range of possible transgressions, the greater the amount of potential information available for mutual blackmailing... Italy is a country with a high level of corruption that has proved hard to explain...Italy has in excess of 100,000 laws and regulations...The probability of living a life, indeed of going through the day, without incurring at least one violation must be virtually zero for Italians... It seems plausible therefore to hypothesize that the high levels of corruption in Italy could depend on the fact that everybody has some dirt on everybody else."

My apologies if I have been misled by this.

Actually, it strongly depends on the region. I live in one of the "lawful" ones.

Are you saying you think common law is more advantageous than civil law, or vice versa? You said "common law" on both sides of your sentence.

I would agree that common law is more advantageous, because stare decisis ensures that the continuity of existing law is maintained, and that even new statute law must be interpreted in a way consistent with the existing system of law. Civil law, which relies entirely on statutes, allows legislatures much more leeway to make sweeping, arbitrary changes.

> In many criminal cases, the common-law requirement that a defendant must have a mens rea (ie, he must or should know that he is doing wrong) has been weakened or erased.

Others have found this a surprising claim, so do I. How has it been weakened or erased? Are they talking about different mental elements or creating offences which do not have a mental element at all? The first doesn't strike me as particularly novel, or objectionable.

> This is a slope that we have been sliding down for some time. While ignorance of the law has generally been excluded as a defense in criminal cases, our system of laws is becoming so convoluted that it is almost impossible to know and understand the applicable law.

This isn't a good thing by any means, but the issue of the law being unknown or incomprehensible to laypeople is nothing new. Take common-law requirements. Honestly, how many people read the relevant case law, or even understand its general effect? People have bumped along for, literally, centuries knowing little more than the broad outline of the law.

I'd also point out that "increasingly codified" isn't synonymous with "increasingly convoluted"; common-law rules are often pretty convoluted.

> Thus we are all at risk.

I'd actually suggest that the general level of legal knowledge has improved. Thanks to the Internet it's at least possible to get at the content of laws without access to a specialised library.

I find it hard to believe that quoted statement. Although I am not an American, I think the legal system of America is very much based on the British system, thus there are very many similarities.

I think judges are very resistant to anything which tries to undermine the principle of intent. If a statute does not make it absolutely clear that the crime is of strict liability, then even the most general words would be interpreted as requiring intent in criminal cases.

Without intending something the government has no legitimacy to imprison the person in most cases. Its a fundamental principle. So, if you are going to make such a big statement concerning the fundamental principle of the criminal law, the least the article could have done is to give some examples, or to give a reference to some journal which documents such "weakening".

As they have not bothered to do either, I would take it as a generalised opinion perhaps with very little basis.

> an undercover federal agent had ordered some orchids from him, a few of which arrived without the correct papers. For this, he was charged with making a false statement to a government official, a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison

What? Lying to an undercover agent is criminal? Well, I guess considering you CANNOT TELL THEY ARE AN AGENT that pretty much means lying needs to be treated as criminal, if you are to keep yourself safe.

Lying can be an offence in many cases. I am not sure about criminal, but defamation for example is basically lying about another person, so too lying to someone about what you are selling, etc. but yeah you do make a good point.

In this article I get a whiff of an agenda to challenge things like Honest Services laws, which form part of the case against people like Conrad Black (who bilked millions of dollars out of investors), by making reference to the millions of people serving time for nonviolent drug offenses. This is galling. The majority of those serving time for drug charges are imprisoned because they lack access to skilled lawyers. White collar criminals, particularly at the upper echelons (where virtually everyone convicted of honest services fraud reside), uniformly evade this problem.

I suspect that if this article was accompanied with a simple pair of pie charts representing the class of crimes under which people are imprisoned in the US, and their economic status, it would make a simpler and more honest point. Using poor people to spring people who've committed securities fraud from prison is wrong.

The whole article is pretty questionable. Take this quote for example:

"Spending per prisoner [is] about $50,000 in California, where the cost per pupil is but a seventh of that."

Yeah, if you count the cost of building prisons but not the cost of building schools. And they're really using the ban on trafficking endangered species as an example of a stupid crime? The fact that there are people in prison for using drugs while people who catch/sell/eat bluefin tuna walk the streets freely is an embarrassment to the country. And it's one thing to complain about being charged for the weight of the whole cannabis plant and not just the buds, but complaining about it being illegal to adulterate drugs is beyond me.

Prison facilities only make up about 10% of the incarceration cost.

Annual per capita costs of incarceration in California: http://www.lao.ca.gov/laoapp/laomenus/sections/crim_justice/...


Education costs are a bit higher than the article suggests, and you are right that they would increase further if building expenses were included. Part of the problem is that most spending is controlled at the county level and many people oppose centralizing education spending or policy at the state or federal level.

Other interesting data can be found at the links provided, albeit a year or two behind the latest budget #s.

How has the cost of providing healthcare gone from $468 to $8768 in 8 years?

Several factors: aging of the inmate population (and higher probability of chronic illness, but people imprisoned under 3 strikes cannot b released on medical parole); higher cost of care in general, for the same reason that health insurance costs have risen; and large payouts for wrongful-death lawsuits due to medical negligence, and subsequent overhaul of prison care. Medical and pharmaceutical services are usually provided by specialty companies that sell both clinical and security expertise. Being a prison doctor pays about $250k/year. Most of the expense goes on a very small percentage of the prisoners, as end-of-life care is the most expensive kind.


I'm not complaining about the spending, my point was just that it's an unfair comparison to include extraordinary expenses when presenting the costs of housing prisoners but not when presenting the costs of housing students.

I know. I just wanted to add more information to the discussion.

Thats 10% in a state with a large budget problem. Every little thing is being looked at there....

You missed the point, which was to allay the parent post's worries about accuracy by providing some more detailed statistics than were available in the article. I am not endorsing the policy behind those numbers. I live in California and it affects me too.

What's wrong with the example? Trafficking endangered species might be worth constraining, but is it really worth imprisoning people over?

And the specific example was of a guy who was locked up for not having 100% complete documentation when he was importing flowers.

It's a long article, almost 4 pages in print. I'm ok with discussing both ends of the social spectrum to establish a universal context. Penology is a frequent topic in the Economist.

The prison-industrial complex is big business, and its political influence is huge. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association in California is scary. They massively outspend other unions in CA: at 1/10th the membership size of the state teacher's union, they spend as much or more annually on lobbying and campaign contributions. Lobbying by the CCPOA led to the passage of the nation's 'toughest' 3-strikes law. Most prison guards in CA earn over $70,000 annually and corrections is 11.2% of the state budge.


India is far worse. Down here if you're rich enough then the law is your private servant. However, if you're poor then you might just end up serving more than 7 years as an under trial before your court day. It doesn't matter if you're innocent or guilty if you're poor. If you're arrested you have to serve time as an under trial due to the byzantine system.

I wish there were some accurate up to date statistics I could link to, but the inaccurate ones themselves are quite telling (http://ncrb.nic.in/PSI2007/prison2007.htm). More than 54245 people were imprisoned for being under trial in 2007. The irony is that if you're well-connected then you don't even need to spend your time in jail if convicted. The press has a ball with such cases and they are decreasing, but they still exist.

On the other hand, I think that a country's justice system is a mirror of the society in which it operates. My real father was a lawyer in Germany and he once explained to me just how different the legal systems of different nations are and just how intertwined they are with the political climate of a country (he's currently doing his PhD on immigration and its socio-economic side-effects which include crime, education etc).

Perhaps, the rise of convictions in the US is a result of a society that wants results fast.Without doubt those tax dollars would reap higher returns if they are wisely invested in programs that benefit those in poverty. The ghettos are the root of a lot of crime, and if their conditions are improved and they're given a lifeline then slowly over time things will change. The problem is that just like in India it is far more impressive to be "tough on crime", than to work at a solution that will take longer than your term in office to give returns.

The same would apply to a lot of other debates. It is so easy to apply a quick-fix, but so difficult to improve something with decades of hard-work. An interesting question is that if there are any countries at all whose culture promotes such things?

P.S. - This paragraph just broke my heart;

>>>But in prison she found she was pregnant. After going through labour shackled to a hospital bed, she was allowed only 48 hours to bond with her newborn son. She was released in March, found a job in a shop, and is hoping that her son will get used to having her around.<<<

I really don't understand how people can treat other human beings like this?

Comparing the growth rates is pretty sobering:

                    1980   2010
 US Population      226MM  307MM  =  ~36% growth
 US Prison Inmates  0.5MM  2.3MM  =  ~360% growth

I think we have seen for ourselves how dangerous democracies can be when mixed with fears.

Alas, people will continue to argues that democracy is the best form of government despite its various flaws.

as opposed to what? Every time I try to come up with an answer for that question I get stuck at 'dictatorship headed by the fairest and wisest person I know.' It's probably just a coincidence, but that person usually turns out to be me :)

What's your alternative good?

Personally, I think random selection would produce a better result than the system we currently have. Select the legislature by lottery. Pick N (where N is some fixed integer designated by law for a each political office) candidates for each office by a random lottery, selected from a pool of everyone who has ever served jury duty. Re-roll for anyone who declines to serve or is currently incarcerated, in a coma, etc. (Obviously, the particulars of the exclusion rules have to be made very explicit so that nobody can exert undue influence by arbitrarily disqualifying people they don't like.) Give each candidate a fixed amount of government funding for their campaign. Nobody is allowed to solicit campaign contributions of any kind or permitted to spend their own money, so everyone is on an even playing field. The quantity of funding depends solely on the particular office that the person is running for. You don't get to choose what office to run for; there is a lottery for each individual office. If you are selected as a candidate for an office by the lottery, you are ineligible for other lotteries for that election year. The candidates run their campaigns. The voters pick the winner for each office by condorcet voting.

My Dad used to propose the jury duty system of democratic representation - you don't get elected, you get randomly drawn - not as a candidate, but as a member of parliament. Shorter terms, but a larger parliament. Interesting to think about, but somewhat impractical, I guess.

I assume you mean it's impractical in terms of all the changes that would be required to get from the current U.S. system of government to a jury duty republic system because of the significant changes to the Constitution that would be required and the near impossibility of passing constitutional amendments, particularly given the extreme opposition that the entrenched ruling class would have towards such a system (because the primary goal of such a system is to uproot an entrenched ruling class and replace it with something more egalitarian).

However, suppose for a moment that you're the revolutionary leader of a small nation in Latin America and, after a long struggle, you have risen victorious over the oppressive old regime of your country and there is overwhelming public support for you to become dictator. But, being aware of the inherent long term problems of dictatorships, you don't want to be a dictator. So, you declare, "We will implement a constitutional republic like the Americans. But, to ensure our government always has the best interests of our people at heart and we are never again dominated by an elite ruling class, we will choose our representatives in the legislature by a lottery like the American PowerBall." What, then, would be impractical about implementing a jury duty system of democratic representation?

Problems that I see revolve around the formalities of office. Learning your way around legislation, the formats, styles, trade-offs, and compromises that must be made all require time.

Beyond that, you run into the problem of lobbyists. Not the evil type that is a stand-in for the word "corruption", but instead the legitimate "education" type lobbyists. You lose much of the institutional knowledge that prevents candy coated views of the world from taking hold. Honestly, how many of the randomly selected people are going to understand the trade-offs of each and every policy, be it economic, societal, political, industrial, trade, environmental, etc. Having experienced people who have been around a few cycles provides a base level of knowledge.

What would stop special interests from buying a new candidate every cycle? They help the candidate get elected, the candidate crafts legislation to the special interests' benefit, then the special interest hires them as a lobbyist when their term is over.

This already happens under the current system. It's not a new problem specific to the Jury Duty Model of Representative Democracy. The solution is to have strong ethics rules to prevent it from happening. You prohibit ex-legislators from working as lobbyists for a lengthy period of time after their term of service. You make a rule, similar to the rules in place regarding reserve military service or FMLA, that guarantees that the person's old job is still there for them after they finish their term of service in the legislature. You treat a promising a job or material wealth to a candidate or sitting legislator in exchange for their vote as a crime and prosecute lobbyists for doing it.

In one way, the system I've proposed has an inherent protection against this problem that our current system doesn't have. Specifically, because all candidates are chosen by random lottery, an incumbent cannot run for a second term except in the exceedingly rare circumstance that they are chosen twice in a row by the lottery. Therefore, the incumbent has no incentive to try to please any third party that helped them get elected in order to retain their support for a re-election campaign.

In The Republic, Plato argues that the best form of rule is philosopher-kings; your answer seems to be the same. I tend to agree, but of course the logistics of finding such a ruler are difficult and subject to corruption.

He also advocates slavery. And proposes a system in which all women are grouped into a pool of common wives, on the basis that when no one knows which child was fathered by whom, every man will have fatherly feelings for every child and every child will respect every man as they would respect their father. And argues that theatrical performances should be illegal. As well as many other things.

Do you believe that discredits his argument for philosopher-kings? Ideas rule, it doesn't matter who had them or what other ideas they had.

Um, the problem with your statement is that.. if you recall from reading The Republic, Plato's Socrates's definition of justice is a defined society with a lot of moving parts. If you discredit some moving parts then you dismantle the entire argument.

I much prefer Zeno's Republic, where everyone is equal but strives to be wise.

Really, I think that there is no such thing as a perfect government, only a perfect citizenry, because the power of a government is always derived from the people within it. A philosopher king would not be able to maintain power unless either A) he was omnipotent or B) the people allowed him to remain in power.

or C) he was tyrannical or D) the army supported him or E) the people didn't care or F) he subdued the people with drugs or G) ...

False dichotomies are the sceptre of the philosopher king‽

A stable mixed republic (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mixed_government), with separate institutions organized on democratic, aristocratic, and monarchial principles, organized into a common state, has tended to be more stable than a state based on one of those bases alone. The Roman republic and early modern England are good examples of this.

I think democracy is necessary - but not sufficient - to maintain stability in the state and moderation in the laws. The cultural problem we face today is that the popular perception of democracy has shifted from seeing it as a mechanism by which the public can protect itself against the abuse of power to seeing it as a legitimizing factor for the assertion of power; institutions are criticized for being "undemocratic" on the latter basis, targeted for reform, and the end result is that our laws become increasingly unbalanced and excessive.

This has been one of my background questions for some time, but the best answer I have been able to come up with is that we replace it with a system where nobody is in charge of making new laws or regulation, but is in charge of enforcing them. Since bad laws are created at a faster rate than good laws, the result should be a net positive.

I suppose with kings and stuff, one advantage could be that they are prepared for their jobs from childhood onwards. If only there was a way to keep them in check if they run wild.

I have an answer, but it will be rejected by most hackers as just a crazy idea sprouted by a crazy ideologue loonies like me.

So what is your answer, then?

I will defer to Winston Churchill: "Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

"Divine-right Monarchy is the worst form of government, except for all other forms which have been tried" - some guy committing the same error as Winston Churchill a few hundred years earlier.

Which means we should stop trying to come up with a better one right?

No. If you have a new alternative, let's hear about it. Churchill wasn't saying there can't be a better system - he was saying that in his view democracy was the best of the alternatives tried to this point.

Well he would say that, being the leader in a democratic system and all.

When he said that he had just been voted out of office, and therefore perhaps not as enthusiastic about this whole "democracy" thing as he usually was.

I really didn't think this would be a particularly controversial quotation. The full quotation (according to wikiquote) is: Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

As Symmetry points out, it is from a speech (to the House of Commons) in 1947, after Churchill's first tenure as Prime Minister.

The quote is frequently used by fanatics (those who look at democracy with a religious fervor), as a conversation ender -- particularly when used after criticism of some democratic process. It almost always implies "we cannot discuss the shortcomings of this system because it is the best". It also often has an implication of "this is the final word on democracy, it is defined as the best, therefore whatever you come up with cannot be as good". This second association is why I replied as I did in my original comment -- it is the same as "love it or leave it".

tl;dr: the quote itself isn't bad, it just has been coopted by those with a certain fanatic mindest.

I used to believe, fervently and automatically, that democracy was the best system. Can you blame me? No-one in my society opposes democracy. No-one sane anyway.

In the last couple of years, I've encountered well-reasoned opposing views for the first time.

Let's back up, and consider how to get an effective x, where x is a cup of coffee or a laptop or anything else. One way might be to get everyone to vote on what kind of x they like, and then give that to everyone. This is of course a terrible system, and not Starbucks nor Apple have that kind of system.

Much better to have competition. I'd be terrible at making coffee or a laptop, and it's best that I'm not trusted to make those things, or to choose who would be good at making them. Nor ought I to be trusted with running a country or choosing who to run it.

So, I think an ideal world might be a world of many smaller governments, each competing for consumers/citizens. Apply the creativity and efficiency of startups to the governing industry. I want a world of Singapores and Hong Kongs and Liechtensteins, where I can pick my government provider approximately the same way I pick my ISP or my employer.

Of course there are problems. So solve them! What better decrepit, corrupt, monopolizing old industry to fix than the governing industry? A Peter Thiel-funded startup is trying (http://seasteading.org).

See also Arnold Kling on competitive government vs. democracy: http://smartdemocracy.com/papers/kling_competitive_governmen...

And also see the reading list at the Let A Thousand Nations Bloom blog: http://athousandnations.com/recommended/

The only problem is that you ignore the nature of men and his history. Nation states are a relatively new thing. People used to live in city states, principataes, and that sort of thing, but then you get Persia for example who wants more and more territory and to rule everyone, then you get Rome, Alexander of Macedonia, Islamists in 600s, etc.

I think we all want to be one world with no border without any government whatsoever. It is unfortunate however that a government is needed.

Personally, I favour Aristocracy combined with some form of accountability to the people. Thus a combination of Aristocracy and democracy.

What desirable qualities do aristocrats have that makes them suited to govern?

Raw democracy is dangerous.

Democracy with limited and enumerated state powers is actually kinda okay.

For example, we could start interpreting the commerce clause the way any reasonable and sane person would. That would go a long way toward fixing this sort of problem, by making us less of a pure democracy.

But the State governments are just as corrupt or more corrupt than the Federal government. Remember Rod Blagojevich?

A democracy is only as good as the citizens involved in it. Some regions have stronger cultures, valuing education and liberty, than others.

I live in Australia and have been planning to migrate to the US in the near future. However this article has genuinely made me reconsider.

I knew there was an incarceration problem in the US, but I didn't realise it was this bad.

If you aren't a criminal, you're probably about as likely to be incarcerated in the US as you are to be eaten by a crocodile in Australia. If I were you about be more worried about American crime rates than incarceration rates.

The chance of being eaten by a crocodile in Australia is about 1 in 20m in any given year (a lot less if you stay in the lower 2/3s of the country, essentially zero for > 95% of the population).

The article above indicates that many innocent people in the US are encouraged to plead guilty. I'm inclined to believe the opposite.

That was one of the 99.9% of statistics that were made up on the spot. The point is that being incarcerated for no reason is way down on the list of worries for Americans who aren't criminals - far below random encounters with criminals who haven't been incarcerated, for example.

And where does the article does not indicate that many innocent people in the US are encouraged to plead guilty?

"Innocent defendants may plead guilty in return for a shorter sentence to avoid the risk of a much longer one. A prosecutor can credibly threaten a middle-aged man that he will die in a cell unless he gives evidence against his boss. This is unfair, complains Harvey Silverglate, the author of “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent”. If a defence lawyer offers a witness money to testify that his client is innocent, that is bribery. But a prosecutor can legally offer something of far greater value—his freedom—to a witness who says the opposite. The potential for wrongful convictions is obvious."

That's a theoretical possibility, not an indication that it's actually happening to many people.

I always thought the tin-hats ought to love this as a conspiracy much more than ufo's or big brother mind control.

Its a perfect setup.

1) Pick a minority with an easily identifiable physical trait (so your beat cops don't have to be too bright)

2) Encourage a set of behaviors through entertainment culture that are unique to them, easily identifiable, and just distasteful enough to garner popular support against them without destabilizing society.

3) Arrest them en-mass and incarcerate them in private prisons.

4) Hella-profit. Channel a portion back to #2. Repeat.

If anyone is interested in digging further in the subject, I highly recommend this documentary[1].

[1] War on Drugs (The Prison Industrial Complex) -- http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=864268000924014458&#...

The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Ayn Rand

How many laws are really necessary? It's like hate crimes. Is not every crime a hate crime of some sort? Do we really need a specific hate crime? No. But what is happening is the public crying out for the government to do something about the crime in the nation. Since the government cannot take any proactive action the only thing left is to make more laws.

Where the problem lies is not the lack of laws but the lack of teeth in the laws. Real punishments need to happen when laws are broken. Chain gangs, whipping and execution need to happen simply to tell every potential lawbreaker that there will be real punishments when laws are broken. As it is now, there are people that commit crimes just to be sent to jail because of the lax atmosphere in the penal system.

The privatization of prisons is a huge problem whether people want to face it or not. Its a serious problem when people can make profits from having people put in their prisons. The only motivation is to increase profits by having a high utilization of the prisons, by increasing frequency and length of prison terms.

building jails is a great business in America :(

Why is that? I can't understand why you'd need to pay $50k to house a convicted criminal where does all the money go - anyone got a breakdown of expenses?

If you allow private corp to build the prison you're always going to get screwed, they can increase the cost per capita each year just short of the amount where it will be worth using another supplier or building your own. That's a big yearly increase.

>If you allow private corp to build the prison you're always going to get screwed, they can increase the cost per capita each year just short of the amount where it will be worth using another supplier or building your own.

isn't that just about exactly what happens in America? :-(

Too many laws, too much corruption.

but why do you look at this as a united states issue - this a --human-- rights issue - when an unhuman living organism -the government- takes away the freedom of -human- individual this proves once again that human individual lives in a human plantation -the flag-states who owns all the rights to human individual- and human individual is the -slave- of that unhuman organism called the flag-state - the fact that you have not been incarcerated by the flag-state who owns all your rights - does not mean that your freedom has not been violated - this is really a fundamental problem that humans do not yet realize --because-- the unhuman organism successfully keeps humanity -divided- and humans do not yet realize that unhuman organisms are -living- organisms without body -or- bodiless humans - until humans recognized the fact that there were -invisible- organisms called viruses - they could not fight viruses - now it is time to recognize that there are -invisible- living organisms that are -bigger- than humans

the unhuman organism has no right over human body - let the government -catch- the criminal who offended a human body - and then deliver him to the family who was offended - deliver the offender to the -human- relatives - if the criminal goes to jail - he spends his time in the gym - he watches tv - he is fed - he doesnt have to work - he is with people like himself - he is actually --happy-- in prison - prison is --not-- a deterrent - catch the killer and hand him to the -mother- http://www.nydailynews.com/news/ny_crime/2010/06/01/2010-06-... the mother will not let the killer spend time in the gym or watch tv or feed him - she will ---torture--- him until he begs her to -kill- him but she will not kill him as long as she lives - and this is what he deserves - this is what i call a deterrent - this is what i call justice - if you killed someones daughter you dont want to be handed to the mother - this is justice

Sorry but I don't like the title, the number of laws is not correlated to the number of prisoners. So I would prefer a title that try to explain why there are so many people behind bars.

Actually the number of laws does correlate with the number of prisoners. Congress creates an average of 55 new offences a year, so there is a constantly expanding range of choices for what to prosecute people with. See http://www.heritage.org/Research/Reports/2008/06/Revisiting-... (be careful, as there are a few typos in it).

This is one of the few issues that thinkers on the left and right can agree about. Depending on which way your politics lean, you can read comments from Justice Stevens and Judge Alex Kozinski, or Justice Scalia and Judge Richard Posner (to pick just a few prominent jurists popular stereotyped as being liberal or conservative). All have expressed opinions about the shortcomings of criminal justice policy and sentencing in particular.

The root of the problem is that those who enforce and administer the penal system have a huge economic interest in maintaining or expanding it. While a good many people point to this as an example of why government is bad (monopoly on the use of force etc.), the sad fact is that very often people vote for this sort of thing in referendums. California's 'Three Strikes' law is a famous example. It's a terrible policy IMHO, but it wasn't foisted on the state by the government. 'We the people' put that one in place, along with quite a few others since.

Titles are generally considered secondary to the article, and are often used to grab attention (in the style of newspaper headlines). And expecting a title (a single sentence, at most!) to explain why there are so many people behind bars is a bit illogical.

Another title: "More people in jail because they don't know how to sum", do you note any difference.

A not sound title is an indicator of a not sound argument.

How is this germane to hacking and/or startups?

PS, voting me down won't make the article any more on-topic, and it doesn't matter anyway, I have oodles of this karma shit, and if I have to burn it pointing out the reddit-bait, so be it.

from: http://ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html

On-Topic: Anything that good hackers would find interesting. That includes more than hacking and startups. If you had to reduce it to a sentence, the answer might be: anything that gratifies one's intellectual curiosity.

I think this would fit under intellectual curiosity, but who's to judge.

Voting up political articles because of "intellectual curiousity" is a cop-out, and you'll get reddit if you go there.

This is very clearly one of those articles that people vote up because they like the message and it gets them fired up, rather than because they didn't know these things (unless of course they happen to reside under a rock).

I find it ironic that on an article about excessive punishment, your comment has been massively down-voted.

Even though I disagree with you, personally I think you raised a reasonable point.

No he didn't. The community does not owe him an explanation for what they like and dislike. Also, reading this same question in many threads becomes a bit annoying.

This article and any other article is on here because someone submitted it and rather than be ignored like countless of other articles, it was actually liked and attracted more than one hundred comments and more than that votes.

  The community does not owe him an explanation
Howeverm, merely posing a question, even with a suggested answer, is not a demand for an explanation. davidw doesn't make me feel like he thinks anyone here owes him an explanation.

  Also, reading this same question in many threads becomes a
  bit annoying.
Which is an argument I agree with. On the other hand, the question is valid and warrants some discussion. Perhaps we need a meta-HN, where davidw could start a topic and we could discuss his actual question.

Legislation is a kind of procedural code, compiled and interpreted by various governmental organizations (courts, agencies, etc.). Rather an abstraction to be sure, but 'if X then Y, else Z' is the sort of logical proposition which underlies both programming and lawmaking, and parsing the resulting code is the sort of intellectual task that hackers enjoy.

Fair question. Maybe not directly relevant, but I think the article highlights the challenges for business owners and managers who may find themselves subject to criminal prosecution without ever having had any intent to commit a crime.

That applies to pretty much anyone who resides in the US.

Some idiot cops recently threatened to arrest me for touching a bent pole on the street. I was examining it when they rolled up and then threatened to jail me for destruction of public property. It seems that they view abuse as a job perk.

It sounds like they were probably right to make an enquiry as to whether you'd committed wilful damage to public property. Perhaps their tone was out or maybe you were over defensive about a simple enquiry WRT the perpetrator of an apparent crime?

In full consideration, genuine question, would you rather cops simply drove by when witnessing people with damaged public property in hand or would you rather they stopped and made some sort of enquiry?

It's not a genuine question. You've already assumed your obvious conclusion by turning "threatened to arrest" into "make an enquiry". Those are not the same, and anyone with the slightest professionalism can easily do the one without the other.

Nope, because they apparently threatened to arrest you as a shortcut to making a more tempered enquiry. If you agree they should have stopped you then it's simply a question of their manner and attitude, if not then it's something else - hence the question.

Did they arrest you, what crime did they claim they were arresting you for? How did you avoid being arrested if they said that is what they were doing? Either they arrested you or didn't, if they didn't they were making an enquiry.

Yes, perhaps they hedged their bets and thought that you might be scared off damaging public property if you had perpetrated the offence by the apparent threat of arrest.

Uhhh, no.

I was hanging out by a damaged pole when they demanded identification and threatened to arrest me for destruction of public property. They could have

a) used some critical thinking and realized that there was no way I could have damaged said pole


b) been polite, and adopted an "you and us vs. whoever damaged the pole" perspective instead of "us vs. you".

In summary then a policeman was a bit rude to you.

No. The point is that the policemen (plural) actually had real power over me and their threat was actionable. For example, if you're rude to me, I could never ever care, but they actually have guns and the power to jail me, so long as it's "their word vs. mine."

Well, it looks like the article made foreigners think they're going to be incarcerated if they set foot on US soil, and there are a lot of immigrants in the startup community.

You can always find a connection if you use your imagination.

> You can always find a connection if you use your imagination.

That game is called "6 degrees of hacker news".

At least 197 hacker-news people have found it interesting, for some reason. Just flag it if you don't like it.

I guess we've all submitted things that are seemingly irrelevant to startups and hacking from time time.

It is an interesting article; that's not really the point. The problem is that this sort of "rabble rousing" article about politics or economics begets more articles just like it. At first they're likely to be good ones, but then they start attracting more and more junky ones, and more users who come for the politics, and so on and so forth.

Luckily, so far, this site hasn't gone that far downhill - pg and company have mostly been vigilant about letting too many of these through.

Very likely. But it is the point in relation to "Anything that good hackers would find interesting".

The problem with that statement is that it ought to read "Anything that good hackers would find interesting, but that wouldn't be so interesting to the general public", or something along those lines. There are plenty of things I find interesting that other hackers find interesting, as well as zillions of people who care nothing for code or startups. Most likely, they aren't appropriate for this site.

I really think the guidelines cover it quite well. The creator of this site is known to express himself clearly. The next sentence is "That includes more than hacking and startups."

Anyway, I still think most of us are guilty of posting content that is not clearly appropriate, but it's amazing how it sometimes strikes a nerve. Just flag it.

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