Last month I noted that Chicago Police Department Superintendent Garry McCarthy and Mayor Rahm Emanuel planned to ask the city council to stiffen the penalties for people who ignore tickets for drinking, gambling, and urinating in public. McCarthy supports the “broken windows” theory of policing, which maintains that cleaner, more orderly streets are safer streets. Chicago desperately needs safer streets—approximately 506 homicides were recorded there in 2012; at least 80 have already been recorded so far this year—and yesterday, the Chicago City Council signed off on the plan. Now, repeatedly urinating in public could earn a Chicagoan a six-month jail sentence and/or a $1,000 fine.
I don’t much like the broken windows theory, which strikes me as a glib, perfunctory take on the substantive problems faced by poor urban neighborhoods. And while I understand that “quality of life” ordinances are ineffective if there are no real penalties for violating them, I think this is a piss-poor idea for a few reasons. First, it’s a bad idea to waste cops’ time on cosmetic police work, especially when they’re working for an underfunded department like the CPD—it’s bad for morale, and it takes time away from actual cases. Second, it’s a really bad idea to unnecessarily assign more inmates to an already-overcrowded jail. In March, CBS Chicago reported that Cook County Jail was only eight inmates under capacity, and that the incarceration rate was sure to rise during the summer. Why make things worse for no good reason?
We put too many people in jail in America, many of them for non-violent offenses that could’ve been punished through fines, drug treatment, house arrest, or other options. This “lock-‘em-up” mania has deleterious effects on the inmates themselves, who will eventually be returned to their communities ill-equipped to readjust to civilian life; to the largely poor communities they leave behind; and to society as a whole. Loss of liberty is a serious thing, and we are too cavalier about imposing jail sentences. Some punishments cause more problems than they solve.