Tito Fuentes played second-base for the San Francisco Giants during the 1960s and early 1970s. Once, after being hit in the head by a pitch, Fuentes reportedly said: “They shouldn’t throw at me. I’m the father of five or six kids.”
I thought of Tito when I heard President Obama and others theorize that the criminal justice system — long prison sentences and/or “over-criminalization” — is partially to blame for problems in the inner city because it is depriving young Blacks of a father at home.
Is it valid to argue, in effect, that a criminal shouldn’t be incarcerated because he’s the father of five or six (or any) kids? Not unless criminal law is to be stood on its head.
Criminal law is founded on the concepts of individual justice and personal responsibility. The criminal’s guilt and sentence are based on his behavior and his individual history, not on social concerns (or “social justice” to use the popular oxymoron).
Social considerations enter the equation at the level of determining what behavior is criminal. But this determination has never to my knowledge been based on the ability of a particular segment of society to avoid committing a type of crime.
Moreover, social concerns don’t control sentencing. If they did, given the extremely high rates of recidivism, the result would be much longer sentences as a means of protecting society from crime.
Going easy on criminals because society needs them on the street would represent a new frontier in the war on standards. The closest analogy I can think of is the admission by colleges of relatively low achieving minority students in order to “diversify” the classroom, thus allegedly enriching the experience of non-minority students.
But college freshman don’t pose a special threat to the safety of others. And flaky college admissions standards cannot fruitfully be compared to the core standards embodied in the criminal law.
The Tito Fuentes theory of criminal justice should be dismissed out of hand.
But suppose one takes it seriously. Is there evidence that the drug dealers and other criminals whom Obama wants to relieve from imprisonment will be a positive presence in the homes of the troubled youths of Baltimore and other cities? Is there evidence that, generally speaking, they will be a presence at all? Maybe, but I haven’t seen it.
It’s convenient to blame the lack of good, committed fathers in the inner city on the criminal law, aka, “The Man,” rather than on the irresponsibility of young fathers. But it seems likely that criminality is but one manifestation of a pattern of irresponsible behavior that includes a lack of willingness to engage in responsible parenting.
An incarcerated father is an absent father. But often so too, essentially, is a father who is on the street dealing drugs.
There is also the issue of recidivism. The rate is extremely high, and barring large scale decriminalization would likely increase under an early release policy. I have seen the recidivism rate stated at around 70 percent within three to five years of release. Within one year of release, I have seen it stated as more than 55 percent. And keep in mind that these figures reflect rearrests, not engaging in arrestable behavior. Not all such behavior results in an arrest.
These numbers have several implications for the Tito Fuentes theory of criminal justice. First, they suggest that a high percentage of criminals who hit the street thanks to shorter sentences are not going to be positive role models, and may not have much commitment to parenting.
Second, they suggest that, to the extent released prisoners do engage in positive, meaningful parenting, many will do so for only a short time. Then, they will return to prison.
President Obama seems unwilling to let the Baltimore rioting go to waste. And, no doubt, there are valid lessons to be learned from it. The utterly counter-intuitive notion that we need to put criminals back on the street is not one of them.