Throw Away the Key?
Jude Wanniski
July 30, 2001


Memo To: Tom Kean
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Young Men in Prison

The New York Times has a story today about young men in prison that reminds me of how sensitive you were to this issue when you were governor of New Jersey in the 1980's. The story, by Sara Rimer, “Convicted in Youth, Inmates Accept Fate and Look Ahead,” is about two young men and a young woman, each black, who are serving sentences of 40 years to life, without the possibility of parole, for killings for which they were responsible when they were still youngsters. One of the reasons I think you were such a great governor, such a popular governor, Tom, is that you were so active in exercising your powers of clemency and parole in the state prison system. Young men who participated in crimes that resulted in the deaths of employees or owners of places they were robbing were not hardened criminals, as that term should only be applied to mature adults who have been hardened over a lifetime of criminal activity.

If I recall correctly, you paroled several hundred prisoners in your eight years in Trenton, and the record of those paroled was exceptionally good. The system you set up in having convicts turned over to their families, who were responsible for looking after them, should have been a model for chief executives of governments federal, state and local. There are many, many thousands of men and women who are now in the prison system, having served years and years of hard time, who should be given another chance at a meaningful life, like the boys written about in the Times story today. It was unfortunate that of all the people you released, the one who was deemed most likely to succeed by the prison authorities went on to murder a relative in hot blood a few years later. The political outcry was such that your successors as governor of New Jersey, Jim Florio, a Democrat, and Christie Whitman, a Republican, went in the opposite direction, keeping their campaign promises to be tough as nails on prisoners, throwing away the key.

You know, Tom, that I’ve argued so many of the crimes committed in our country in the last quarter century have been related to the economic turbulence associated with the Cold War. When we were almost totally focused on victory over the USSR without a nuclear war, we really did put economic growth on the back burner. We had what amounted to a Great Depression, except it was masked by the worst inflation in the nation’s history, which left us with the appearance of economic growth even as the dollar’s purchasing power collapsed. It became impossible for a middle-class family to make ends meet without both spouses going to work. For the people at the bottom of the economic ladder, the only opportunity was in the underground economy or with a life of crime. Both political parties participated in sweeping the worst problems under the rug, giving unmarried mothers welfare payments as long as there was no man in the house. It would have been amazing if the social pathologies predicted by Pat Moynihan had not developed. By then, the only solution for polite white society was “three strikes and you’re out, and throw the key away.”

When we had lunch in Madison a few years back, when President William Clinton had you on his “Race Commission,” I remember how dismayed you were that some states were proving how tough they were by making it “two strikes and you’re out.” We discussed how useful it would be if the prison systems set up formal schooling programs, to prepare prisoners for jobs that could support a family when they were released, and you told me how the rationales for such programs dissolved when we moved closer to permanent imprisonment of two- and three-time losers. Public opinion polls always show people want their political leaders to be hard on crime, but there is no way ordinary people can explain to a public-opinion pollster how they would prefer that prisoners who could be released to a productive life, having served serious time for punishment, be given that chance.

You may remember me telling you how I correspond with a man now in this thirties who is in the state prison in Trenton, having served more than 15 years of hard time for having killed his girlfriend when he was still a boy. The crime certainly deserved severe punishment, but there are thousands of men who killed in cold blood who got lighter sentences because the times were different, who were put back on the street with much less time behind bars. The young man, who is black, was a promising student, with a father who put him out of the house for disobedience. The boy was living out of his old jalopy when his girlfriend came to tell him she was through with him too. He stabbed her with the dinner knife he had been given by his mother, along with plates and utensils so he could eat in his car/home. The case came to my attention from Bill Greider, the reporter for Rolling Stone, to whom the boy began writing from prison. After 15 years behind bars, everyone who knows the case, including the parents of the girl and the judge who sentenced him, support his release, but the system will not permit it. It takes executive clemency, and the political establishment seems only to respond to hefty political contributions.

President George W. Bush, I think, would benefit from your thoughts on this subject, Tom. As the governor of Texas, he may not have had much chance to think these issues through with the kind of care you gave. The Texas culture is more black and white when it comes to crime, but I think even Texans as a whole would prefer that there be an effort to look more carefully at the conditions of individual men and women now serving time, permitting exceptions to the rule. If the petitions for release came from the families of those imprisoned, that should be enough for at least a review. There are so many men now in the prison system – more than 2 million – that it has become too easy for us to forget that each one of the 2 million is an individual. It is much easier to lump them together, assume they are all dangerous and deserving of as much punishment as the law demands, and throw the key away. It is ironic, is it not, that President Bush is now making the case for the 3 million illegal immigrants in the United States from Mexico and other Latin countries, on the grounds that the unemployment market is tight and we need them to do the menial jobs at the bottom of the ladder?