Thomas Sowell

Justice Anthony Kennedy won an outburst of applause at a recent meeting of the American Bar Association in San Francisco when he criticized mandatory sentencing laws.

"Every day in prison is much longer than any day you've ever spent," Justice Kennedy said. "A country which is secure in its institutions and confident in its laws should not be ashamed of the concept of mercy."

Two centuries ago, Adam Smith had something to say about mercy as well: "Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent."

Innocent victims of crime seem to disappear from the lofty vision and ringing rhetoric of those who worry that the punishment of criminals is "too severe," as Justice Kennedy put it. If a day in prison can be pretty long, so can every day living in a high-crime neighborhood, where you have to wonder what is going to happen to your son or daughter on the way to or from school.

The nights can get pretty long too, when you are afraid to go out on the streets and have to worry about how safe you are, even inside your apartment behind doors with multiple locks. Locks can't stop stray bullets from warring drug gangs.

Justice Kennedy may feel "secure" where he lives and works. But the "equal protection of the laws" under the 14th Amendment applies also to those who live in less elite circumstances.

Even in high-crime neighborhoods, most people are not criminals. But the minority of thugs and hoodlums in their midst can make life a living hell for the majority of decent people.

Even those people in such neighborhoods who do not become direct victims of crime nevertheless suffer economically. Prices are higher in stores that have to have costly security devices and pay higher insurance rates because of crime and vandalism.

There is also a large hidden price in the absence of as many stores, banks, and other institutions in high-crime neighborhoods.

Low-income people often have to go outside their neighborhoods for shopping. For those who don't have cars, that means paying more bus fares or taxi fares out of their low incomes.

How about a little "mercy" for these people? The sentences of innocent people in high-crime neighborhoods can last a lifetime.

You wouldn't have to lock up 5 percent of the people in high-crime neighborhoods to bring the crime rate down dramatically. Some years ago, when little East Palo Alto, California, had the highest murder rate in the nation, a law enforcement crackdown drove that murder rate way down in just one year by taking a relative handful of career criminals off the streets.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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