Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Murder Cards: The Crime we Fear, the Criminals we Jail

SAN DIEGO -- The next time inmates play cards in county jail, they may have a pair of murders or a straight of victims looking up at them.

New card decks unveiled Tuesday will be made available to inmates in seven jails and depict 52 unsolved murders. Some of the cold-case cards will show a murder victim along with a description of the crime, while others will have the faces of fugitives on them.

The hope is that inmates can provide information about the unsolved cases and will call a toll-free number linking them to Crime Stoppers....


The cards may be good policing, but they also reflect the uncanny twinning of the worst crimes and the pettiest criminals that characterizes so much of American criminal justice. To be blunt, we fear murderers and we lock up Laurel and Hardy. Jails in America are crammed. Some are awaiting trial for felony offenses, but many are there for a wide variety of relatively minor crimes from driving under the influence (which means being over a chemical blood test limit, not a behavioral degree of intoxication), fighting with their parents (lots of teenage girls end up in jail now for domestic violence after striking their mothers), and of course marijuana possession.

The linkage between the two, murder and mundane misbehavior, is a network of laws that has made penalties tougher for minor crimes on the theory that they are causally related to major crimes. (That theory is epitomized by the Broken Windows policing approach, but is much broader and began much earlier).

The cards, by the way, do generate tips (actually jails are factories of tips to the police, not all of them accurate). But solving serious crimes by focusing on minor offenses is generally an expensive and ineffective idea that has helped make America less free without making it more secure.

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