Saturday, November 13, 2021

Social Justice Thrives in Cook County during Tradeoff Holiday

During this terrible pandemic, a silver lining has been that many inconvenient tradeoffs no longer apply. A Yale study showed that paying people not to work does not, for the time being, prevent anyone from working. Perhaps also emptying the prisons can enhance public safety. We can have social justice and safety at the same time.

Figure 1 below shows points-in-time numbers of people in Illinois prisons who were convicted in Cook County and admitted to prison within the past half year. The stock of new convicts had been between 3000 and 4000, until the pandemic when it dropped to 1000. Figure 2 limits the sample to convicted murderers. They had been entering Illinois prisons at a rate of about 130 per year (65 per half year), until the first half of 2020 when the rate dropped to about 40 per year (20 per half year).

I hope that Chicago-area activists can work to help maintain this progress. Perhaps they could even lend some expertise to the rest of Illinois (not shown in the charts above), which has missed a social-justice opportunity by continuing to admit convicted murderers to prison at pre-pandemic rates.

Formerly experts thought that incarceration enhanced public safety.  But that was based on old data, examined by researchers lacking sufficient social-justice training.  Especially during a pandemic, there is no reason to worry about adverse consequences until somebody has conducted a new study using state-of-the-art empirical methods.

A troublesome skeptic might insist on metrics to indicate when the tradeoff-holiday has ended, when the path to safety might again involve more incarceration rather than less. Could it be dangerous to barrel forward on the social-justice highway, when at any moment we could find ourselves in high-speed reverse?

Such a reactionary critic forgets that social justice is crowd sourced. The overwhelming odds are that one of us will notice the situational shift and promptly alert the polity. In the worst-case scenario, remember: if we want to make an omelette, we must be prepared to break a few eggs.

[Update: Cook County Prosecutor Kim Foxx is often credited with reducing incarceration.  This week the American Constitution Society and the Black Law Students Association of UChicago Law School hosted her.  Did you encourage her to keep making the omelette?!]

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