Keeping Excessive Punishment In Check

Reihan sketches out a plan to do so:

What government routinely fails to do is account for the costs the criminal justice system imposes on the civilians who get caught in its web. Mark A.R. Kleiman, a public policy professor at UCLA and author of When Brute Force Fails, made this point vividly in a Democracy Journal essay published last spring. Instead of fixating on the dollar costs of running the criminal justice system, he asks that we also account for “the suffering inflicted by arrest, prosecution, conviction, and incarceration, including all of the residual disabilities that go with the label ‘ex-convict,’ and the fear created by overaggressive policing.”

Imagine if, as Cardozo Law School professor Richard A. Bierschbach has suggested, we had in place a “punishment budget.”

Given such a budget, we would accept that the criminal justice system would cause some degree of suffering. At the same time, we’d insist that if you pass some measures that increase suffering in some way—say, by making more arrests—you’d have to reduce the sum total of suffering in some other way, for instance by reducing prison sentences for nonviolent offenders. This would impose a useful check on the creep of new laws, rules, and regulations that steadily increase the government’s coercive powers, as if on autopilot.

He also recommends getting “better, more reliable data on policing so that communities have a clear sense of what local law enforcement agencies are doing in their name.” Along the same lines, Josh Voorhees wants the president to “call for all law enforcement agencies to keep an accurate count of how many people the police kill each year”:

Without a formal and comprehensive reporting system, the president, lawmakers, and everyone else have no way of knowing the true scope of the problem. Even if the government is willing to believe that police officers are almost always justified when they kill suspects in the line of duty, Washington still owes the nation a full accounting of those killings that it has implicitly sanctioned. How can the president hope to limit the number of lives lost if he has no way of knowing how many lives are actually lost? How will Congress evaluate whether policies aimed at curbing police shootings are successful if it has no way of tracking the success or failure of those policies?