HEY CONNECTICUT, EVEN HOLLYWOOD GOT MASS INCARCERATION RIGHT WHEN IT STOPPED MAKING DEATH WISH MOVIES IN 1994 !
By Brian Moran, Esq.
When it comes to mass incarceration, Connecticut is like the Energizer Bunny, we just keep going and going and going.
We are now 40 years into the war on crime and its consequential hyper-incarceration. What we have failed to realize is that the problem, namely violent crime, was largely brought under control by the mid-1990s. Crime in the United States peaked in the early 1990s. Drug usage also started to decline about the same time. However, the United States, including Connecticut, doubled-down on the war on crime during the 1990s. A new prison was built in the United States every two weeks. No one wanted to be accused of being soft on crime. As a result, no one bothered to take a hard look at whether mass incarceration was continuing to yield sufficient benefits to justify its extraordinary cost.
The war on crime was understandable. Our streets and communities were not safe during the 1970s and 1980s. Anyone old enough to remember, can readily recall the fear faced by our citizens, particularly at night in our cities. Such fear propelled the phenomenal success of the Death Wish movies. Made with a budget of $3 million, the first Death Wish movie, released in 1974, grossed over $22 million. Viewers cheered when the vigilante, Paul Kersey (played by Charles Bronson), blew violent criminals away using his .32 Colt Police Positive revolver. Naturally, Hollywood, sensing a good thing, did not stop there. Paramount went on to make not one, but four sequels.
In each of the sequels, Kersey increased his fire power: a .380 Beretta Model 85 pistol (1982); a .475 Wildey Magnum pistol (1985); a .380 Walther PPK pistol (1987); and a .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson Model 629 revolver (1994), Dirty Harry’s weapon of choice.
However, the Death Wish franchise finally ran out of steam in 1994. Bronson was 71 at the time of the last movie, at which point he was more likely to be collecting social security than rounding up villains. By 1994, crime rates had come down. The really violent people who posed a genuine threat to public safety had largely been removed. Ironically, most of the harsher sentencing laws (including mandatory minimums and three strikes) came into existence after the mid-1990s, when the threat was subsiding. We ended up sweeping up more and more non-violent offenders, including drug offenders and perpetrators of victimless crimes. This was done at an enormous cost that yielded diminishing returns in terms of public safety.
We would have been better off had we followed Hollywood’s lead and cut back on mass incarceration at the time of the last of the Death Wish movies in 1994. But we kept going for another 20 years here in Connecticut. It is not too late to right size our prison population and re-invest the cost savings in more productive ways. Several other states, both blue states and red states, have done so. They have succeeded in lowering costs, reducing recidivism and improving public safety. They have achieved such results by steering non-violent offenders away from incarceration and toward diversionary treatment and support programs, all at a fraction of the cost. Probation is estimated to cost about a tenth of incarceration. Post-release support programs run about a third of the cost of incarceration. The system we currently have in Connecticut is neither sustainable nor yielding great results. Connecticut spends about $1 billion annually on its prisons and pays $51,000 per bed (the third highest in the United States). Those costs are likely to increase as our prison population ages. Connecticut’s recidivism rate stands about 20% higher than the national average. Connecticut taxpayers, who pay the third highest taxes in the country, deserve far better results. We need to embrace the kinds of reform that have produced better results at lower costs in other states, including our neighboring state of New York.