Looking for good news, and finding some about prisons

by Rob Tiller

These are stressful times. Current stressors include wars, riots, financial turmoil, unemployment, political gridlock, nuclear weapons, droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, global warming, and mass extinction. It doesn’t feel right to be indifferent to so much suffering and so many potential disasters, but taking it all fully on board seems impossible.

When I took the PADI scuba rescue course last month, I had in mind the possibility of helping someone in an emergency. One of the lessons, though, was that sometimes you can’t help. You may see someone in dire peril, and be the only person in a position to act, but lack the necessary equipment, experience, or strength to save the person without endangering yourself. In such a case, you should not attempt a rescue. Not acting would be traumatic, but it would be the least bad choice.

Some of the current crises feel bad in this way: we have a ringside seat as the disasters unfold, and there’s very little you or I can do directly. Well, we could try to avoid electing as our representatives people who are delusional. And maybe it does some good to keep talking about good choices as opposed to delusional ones. Maybe more sane days lie ahead. But meanwhile, even to have a chance, we need to take care of our own mental and physical health.

One of my strategies is to take special note of the occasional story involving something really positive. Good news is often disfavored for the front page, so you have to keep a sharp eye out for it. Recently I’ve spotted good news about decreasing crime rates, decreasing highway fatalities, decreasing intolerance for gays, and increasing skepticism about the war on drugs.

Here’s the latest from the NY Times: “Trend to Lighten Harsh Sentences Catches on in Conservative States.” The story by Charlie Savage identifies sentencing and parole reforms in a number of states that are lowering the prison population, helping drug addicts with treatment programs, and assisting convicts in reentering society. The driving force is not humanitarian concerns, but rather budgetary ones — imprisonment is expensive.

The prison overhaul movement is happening in Texas, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, Ohio, and elsewhere. The movement is supported by a number of prominent conservatives, including Edwin Meese III, Newt Gingrich, and William J. Bennett — all strict law-and-order authoritarians from way back. This is quite amazing.

The story notes that there are also a few states that have revoked programs for early parole, including New Jersey, which changed its policy after two inmates released early committed murder. It is difficult for statistical evidence of social benefits, no matter how strong, to overcome a vivid anecdote. So the whole thing could still fall apart. But maybe it won’t.