Oct 29, 2010

Too much democracy?

Radley Balko had an interesting essay in Reason the other day about too much democracy in the justice system:
In 1970 one in 400 American adults was behind bars or on parole. As of 2008, the number was one in 100. Add in probation, and it's one in 31. The number of people behind bars for drug crimes has soared from 40,000 in 1980 to about half a million today. States today spend one of every 15 general fund dollars on maintaining their prisons. According to the King's College World Prison Population List (PDF), the U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world's population but nearly a fourth of its prisoners. Judging by these official numbers, America's incarceration rate leads the developed world by a large margin, although it's doubtful that authoritarian regimes such as China's are providing accurate data, especially about political prisoners. But among liberal democracies, the competition isn't even close: As of 2008, the U.S. incarceration rate was 756 per 100,000 people, compared to 288 for Latvia, 153 for England and Wales, 96 for France, and 63 for Denmark.

How to reverse or ameliorate the damage already done is a debate we'll be having for decades. But there is one change that could at least stop the bleeding: less democracy. As New York Times reporter Adam Liptak pointed out in a 2008 article, America's soaring incarceration rate may be largely due to the fact that we have one of the most politicized criminal justice systems in the developed world. In most states, judges and prosecutors are elected, making them more susceptible to slogan-based crime policy and an electorate driven by often irrational fear. While the crime rate has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, polls consistently show that the public still thinks crime is getting worse.
Yglesias chimes in:
I agree with that, but as I’ve said before I think there’s a much broader issue of too many elected officials in America. And I don’t think this should be understood as a call for “less democracy.” The United Kingdom is a democracy. But a resident of London votes for a borough councillor, a member of the London Assembly, a mayor of the city, a member of parliament, and a member of the European parliament. A resident of New York City votes for a city council member, a mayor, a public advocate, a city comptroller, a district attorney, a state assembly member, a state senator, a governor, a lieutenant governor, a state comptroller, a state attorney general, a member of the US house, two US Senators, and the President. Then on top of all that he votes for judges!

And you have to ask yourself—is all that voting better described as “more democracy” or as “people voting in a lot of elections they’re not realistically going to know anything about”? I’m going to take what’s behind door number two. There’s no point in holding elections that just consist of ignorance punctuated by the odd burst of demagoguery.
Perhaps what they're talking about is the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy. With the representative model, in its very most basic form, you select a representative to run the government and then judge that person based on your perception of their performance. The more individual voters are involved in choosing highly specific and complex positions, the closer to the direct model, and the worse, it seems.

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