Speaking Of Bad Choices

One of my sons lives in Amsterdam, so when I come across a headline featuring that city, I generally take more than a cursory interest in the report that follows–especially when that report confirms my own impressions.

And especially when the implications confirm my policy conclusions.

A recent article by Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post hit both of those targets. Rubin began by recounting how, on a recent visit to Amsterdam, she’d walked back to her hotel late on a weeknight. It was a pleasant evening, and a relatively long walk, yet she never felt nervous or unsafe. She acknowledged that there are many New York neighborhoods in which she also feel safe, but unlike her Amsterdam experience, her feeling of security there was largely “because police are everywhere. Visible on the street, in cars, on horseback.”

The experience led her to consider the very different approaches to crime chosen by policymakers in the Netherlands and the U.S.–beginning with gun ownership.

In the Netherlands, there are roughly 2.6 guns for every 100 people; there are more than 120 guns per 100 people in the United States. In the Netherlands, it is very, very hard to get a gun; in the United States, it is ridiculously easy to get guns. In fact, according to a report by Mariel Alper and Lauren G. Beatty in the Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly “21% of state and 20% of federal prisoners said they possessed a gun during their offense. … About 29% of state and 36% of federal prisoners serving time for a violent offense possessed a gun during the offense.

In the Netherlands there are about 27 gun homicides a year. Not 27 per 100,000. Total. In the United States, the Pew Research Center reports, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in 2021. (The U.S. population is about 20 times that of the Netherlands; U.S. gun homicides are more than 1,777 times the number in the Netherlands.)

The differences go well beyond gun policy; Rubin reports that the Dutch don’t incarcerate people for drug addiction, for example, a decision that has allowed them to lock up far fewer people. She cites a report from the Guardian,

“Since 2014, 23 prisons have been shut, turning into temporary asylum centres, housing and hotels. … The number of prison sentences imposed fell from 42,000 in 2008 to 31,000 in 2018 — along with a two-thirds drop in jail terms for young offenders. Registered crimes plummeted by 40% in the same period, to 785,000 in 2018.”

By contrast, a report from the Prison Policy Initiative found that in the United States, “Drug offenses still account for the incarceration of over 350,000 people, and drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system…. As a result, “Drug arrests continue to give residents of over-policed communities criminal records, hurting their employment prospects and increasing the likelihood of longer sentences for any future offenses.” In short, the United States has 163 times the number of incarcerated people as the Netherlands, more than eight times as many per 100,000 people.

And–just as with our other policy choices (health care comes immediately to mind) our choices have been and continue to be expensive. The United States spends some $300 billion annually on policing and incarceration. And as Rubin points out, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Overpolicing and over-incarceration costs include lost earnings, adverse health effects, and damage to the families of the incarcerated. Those social costs are estimated to be three times the direct costs.

And none of those fiscal consequences include the ongoing, negative social effects of disproportionate policing of Black and White citizens…

The public safety choices we’ve made might be defensible, if the result was to make Americans safer than the Dutch. But–you knew this was coming, didn’t you?–that clearly isn’t the case. As Rubin says, “Our choices have not made us safer and have cost us dearly.”

In real terms, the U.S. criminal justice system and ubiquitous guns require an industry — ambulances, emergency room personnel, police, courts, judges, prisons, lawyers, private security and more — that the Dutch system does not. As I walked down the streets of Amsterdam, I imagined what we could have bought with the money we spend on the criminal justice system: universal college education, universal medical care, a strong social safety net.

Bottom line: American policy choices feed a “criminal justice industry”–without doing much to eliminate crime. As Rubin writes, different criminal justice policies “very likely could allow us to spend less money, lower incarceration rates, reduce the human and opportunity costs, and increase personal safety.” She says we have the system we do because we’ve “fetishized guns, criminalized addiction, neglected mental and emotional health, and resisted addressing social factors driving crime.”

We could make better choices–but that would require a clear-eyed look at the consequences of the choices we’ve made.


  1. “Drug offenses still account for the incarceration of over 350,000 people, and drug convictions remain a defining feature of the federal prison system…”

    We have enough evidence in many states to discuss whether legalizing cannabis reduces incarcerations/reduces gun violence. If we shine a light on the black market of drugs in this country, we should see gun deaths and incarcerations decreasing. However, I don’t see the studies. Wonder why?

  2. “Speaking Of Bad Choices”
    “We could make better choices–but that would require a clear-eyed look at the consequences of the choices we’ve made.”

    While agreeing with Sheila’s words and those of Jennifer Rubin, I’m going to take a different tack and comment on the 2024 Presidential Election which is rushing at us at warp spreed. That is the primary choice we made and must make that choice again soon. Two years ago the Democratic party and voters and the Electoral College chose to trust 78 year old Joe Biden to return this nation to a progressive direction while cleaning out the out house conditions (including ketchup stains on walls) left behind by Trump & Co. with no transitional information as has been the tradition since this government began. Now, suddenly, two years later, Joe had the temerity to celebrate his 80th birthday while President. This is not a political issue nor is it a religious issue and the far-right Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the event. The future of this country is in the hands of the Democratic party, the sitting lawmakers and the voters who are complaining that Joe Biden is now 80 years old. The list of what President Joe Biden has accomplished is much longer than the list of any physical limitations he may have, and had two years ago. There are complaints from his own party that he will not debate his opponents…there are currently NO actual opponents to be debated with, there is the growing list of Republican presidential wannabes, none of whom appear to be rational lawmakers who are pushing the Trump MAGA, White Nationalist, Freedom Caucus campaign foundation…with or without Trump.

    “Speaking Of Bad Choices”; the Democrats are the biggest help to put Trump back in the White House or replace him with DeSantis who would out-Trump Trump if put in power.

  3. The NRA, gun manufacturers and prison owning corps have become far too rich and powerful by lobbying Congress and state legislatures. They will never allow our system to change.

  4. Great thread today.

    Of course racial inequity is a huge part of the prison system in the United States. Racism and bigotry have a huge influence on incarceration.

    When a person is born in the States, we soon afterwards get a social security number. That number follows us for the rest of our lives. When a person is incarcerated, the government will use that social security number to acquire funds that support the incarceration. They will take a loan out on that social security number, that money is invested, and grown to pay for the individuals incarceration and enriching lawyers, court systems, prosecutors, private prison operators, even interstate commerce to a degree.

    Prisoners are just a commodity that are used to make money. Even this chicanery is not equitable for all prisoners. I suppose you can call all prisoners green, the color of money, but the light green ones have a much easier time for the most part than the dark green ones.

    Why do the states or the federal government not insist on investment in the most blighted communities? Because those blighted communities have no opportunities and crime is the feeder into the prison system.

    The hundreds of billions of dollars made by imprisonment is going to be a hard nut to crack. As a matter of fact, picture the aircraft carrier Ford going full speed and then having to turn and go the other direction. Well, that’s a big project! Not something that’s really easy. It takes a long time to turn that ship around. And, why would you? They would be cutting off all of that clandestine money flowing into the systems and into the pockets of as Todd would say the oligarchs.

    Guns are a money maker, and in the inner cities, they’re used by the criminal element as part of the feeder system into the prisons.

    Why do you think the US government was the Main drug and gun smuggler into the United States? The amount of money that was made clandestinely was a slush fund for all sorts of shenanigans! In Chicago, train cars full of guns would be left in the rail yards amongst tens of thousands of other rail cars. The information would be given to the gangs, they would find the cars cut the locks and abscond with thousands of weapons. The same thing was done with drugs.

    How will a society survive when it uses its citizens in this manner. It purposely promotes racial segregation to keep the turmoil going, and those whose greed knows no boundaries, continue to make money hand over fist! Yes we’re supposed to be a country of laws, but those laws are not used to keep civil order and security, not used for peace, but used for profit.

    When Reagan was involved in Iran Contra, that was just a small portion of what was going on. You don’t have any dime droppers anymore, it’s business as usual funding businesses, off the books conflicts, an entire shadow government to promote wealth, power and control.

    I believe, at least hopefully, Vernon will be writing a book about a lot of this stuff. I’ll tell you what, it’ll be a barn burner.

    How can this country ever claim a moral high ground on anything? It’s corrupt from top to bottom.

  5. Amsterdam and The Netherlands are a fabulous culture and society to emulate. One of our most favorite cities to visit just to enjoy the ambiance and unique lifestyle.

  6. Now let’s talk candidly about the farce of gun ownership in the majority belief among gun owners primarily motivated to protect self and family. Experienced gun instructors teach and train gun owners that most active shooter incidents are at close range and last two to three seconds. That is how long you have to live if you choose to respond and engage with a gun. Once I turned in my weapon and was honorably discharged from combat infantry, I made a clear choice whether to own a gun or not in civilian life. I chose not to. I reasoned I had a far better chance of survival without engaging with a weapon than standing my ground assertively submitting to the offender. I learned not to put myself or my family in that position. Most gun owners I have known are not fit or trained to survive a three second weapon engagement. It is all a multi-billion dollar maniacal farce.

  7. As with the medical industry, the policing
    /incarceration industry is hugely profitable for a few and hugely costly for the rest of us. Until more of “the rest of us” stop accepting the idea that these policies make us safer and healthier, and get over our fear of “the other”, none of this will change. Cost doesn’t matter to people who are afraid.

  8. Todd,

    Thanks for publishing those data on drug offenses. To add to it, I’d like to mention the over $6 Billion Americans spend on illicit drugs that keeps the Central American drug cartels in business. Your point about legalizing those drugs would end this species embarrassment and, I’d bet, end the surge of people at our southern borders who are literally running for their lives.

    But that all said, it’s still the guns, isn’t it? The 120 guns/American speaks even more volumes about those who fondle them: Only about 30% of Americans own guns. So, the concentration of that ownership means that those folks are scared out of their wits (At least those who actually HAVE wits.) hoard them. There’s an anecdote about a police bust where they found 52 guns in the possession of a single person. When asked why he had 52 guns, he said, “Because somebody might have 51.”

    Pretty sick.

  9. We are the CSA, the Capitalist States of America, home to the C’s (complexi) – Military-Industrial, Pharma, Prison, Farm, Energy, even Education….ain’t gonna change. Money talks…community walks.

  10. The scariest words in the American dialect are, “We will raise taxes!” If you don’t believe me, ask Walter Mondale. To implement the necessary programs to have a better, safer, healthier America, we first need the money for those programs. Americans don’t seem to understand that paying a bit more now will result in long term personal gains that more than offset the immediate outlay for taxes.

  11. The most prudent thing one could do is to support the white-man most responsible for the majority of these bad decisions a.k.a. (draconian and racially motivated drug laws).

    That was none other Uncle Joe Biden as Senator.

    Same cast. Same old script. Same old reel that will always spin in place,never moving forward. By actually moving forward, the bougie-blob becomes much less comfortable. We can’t have that.

  12. Peggy – it doesn’t help when the ultra-rich and corporations pay little taxes and when the government sends money (unemployment checks, COVID checks, etc.) they allow massive fraud.

  13. It surprises me that only 29% to 36% of US prisoners had guns while committing their crimes. With the ease of access of obtaining guns legally or illegally, I would think the majority of prisoners would have guns during their crimes to warrant prison time.
    It seems that violent crimes and drugs go hand in hand as reported on the nightly news. Several shootings a night and I automatically think drugs are involved.
    Seems the Dutch have a better way of dealing with drug addiction, medical treatment instead of incarceration.
    Crimi Gration is also part of the criminal justice system now, with many people in limbo.
    It was in the news yesterday that Hunter Biden made a plea deal to avoid prison time by accepting that he was late paying taxes and illegal possession of a firearm. I’ve read Hunter Biden’s book and it’s obvious he was a serious drug addict. I heard commentary that most people who pay their taxes late are not charged; but the republican prosecutor wanted to show something after years of intense investigations into the Bidens.

  14. Lester,

    Absolutely the government allows fraud. If you look at the past 70 years or so, the government, everything connected to the prison system, has made hundreds of billions of dollars.

    The money not only comes from the incarceration, but it comes from the sale of illicit drugs and guns. Guns are needed to commit crimes of course, but, it’s also big business. They will never get rid of guns.

    Folks cry out for some sort of change, so, They throw a little eye wash or ear wash out there, they’re doing this, they’re doing that, we’re going to bring more jobs into the inner cities we’re going to enact stricter or stringent gun laws, we’re going to liberalize some drugs, but we still have the war on drugs! Equitable education, equitable health care, compassion and empathy, are really non-existent. But the attempted fight for these things keeps folks occupied and attention turned away from what’s actually going on. Kind of like your focused on the front door, in the back door is wide open.

    If we are realistic about it, and piece together all of the threads and all the information just on this particular blog, What would it tell you? All of the stuff is connected! It’s an industry where humans are the commodities, it’s slavery pure and simple. Georgia was a debtors colony, the crown emptied the debtors prisons in England and sent them here. Something similar, not quite the same, happened in the penal colony called Australia.

    Really, instead of chains and shackles, instead of whips and torture, we now just stick people in prisons to churn out this parallel economy. The sweet thing about it all for them, is that the money is all clandestine and not bound by any monitoring or accountability.

    The chicanery has only increased over the decades, this is all nothing new. It’s been done in some form or fashion for centuries. The Romans had their bread and circuses, the gladiators were slaves and or prisoners. Look at how much commerce was made off of the Roman bread and circuses. Roman society was pacified by bloodlust.

    This entire criminal system, will continue until it is unsustainable, and society will end up collapsing under the weight of greed, criminality and inequity.

    Why does nothing change? Because they don’t want it to. The real criminals have been elected by the people.

  15. John,

    Furthermore – the ongoing (and growing – COVID is billions and billions) corruption further corrodes the public view of Washington and “big government” – WFA – been the code for the GOP for years – now the DEMs in control get the “benefit” – fewer votes.

  16. Interesting–I came across some articles and commentary from Ex-Pats living abroad–the commenters were mostly female but how living in Europe is so different from a feeling of safety. Some were living in France, Germany, one was in Denmark but they all report how they can walk and not have the keys clinched in their fists to be used to stab someone or to have it on them when they get to their houses. On public transportation after the first few times of flinching when a fellow passenger reaches into their pockets its not to pull out a gun but some random non-lethal item like gum.

    One woman commented she was nervous when her husband chose to help a fellow traveler broken down on the side of the road, her fear was that it was a guise that the broken down traveler was going to attack her husband and steal from them.

    Whenever I hear policy makers blame mental illness on the mass killings and the every day killings–I think, are they saying that out of all the developed nations, Americans have a higher incident of mental health? Are we just more violent than others? After reading the above and these other articles of Americans living abroad and an article of safe places for women to visit (USA was not mentioned)–I am beginning to believe there is something wrong w/ us. We just violent MF’ers and we have the access to guns.

  17. I think the factors mentioned by Rubin (“fetishized guns, criminalized addiction, neglected mental and emotional health, and resisted addressing social factors driving crime”) are side effects–benefits, the right might say?– of the biggest factors. The primary policing/incarceration motives are money and control. Plus, there is the very large added benefit that the unfair application of the laws divides the populace and creates an environment of FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) within which the existing powers can flourish, and even expand their control.

    It’s disgusting but horribly effective.

    A good start would be to treat drug addiction as a health issue rather than a criminal one. Here in Canada, we’re starting to move in that direction. Over the last few decades, we’ve initiated needle-exchange programs, safe injection sites, legalized marijuana, and have started to decriminalize other drugs, too. However, it’s hard to imagine a country moving in this direction without first acknowledging the need for a universal health care system.

    Anyway, although I’d love for you guys to move health care and policing in progressive directions, I can’t see it happening. The drug war is the perfect cover for the divisive and racist policies the right desires. And the lack of health care keeps the populace fearful, desperate, and under the control of the employers.

    And of course, religion plays a factor. As usual, the prosperity doctrine interjects itself and says that if you’re addicted to drugs, then you are failing in god’s eyes, and he is punishing you. And, you DESERVE your punishment. Yadda, yadda, yadda…

  18. Rubin forgets one other reason the US has these laws –

    Law’n’order – the Republican mantra for decades –

    I don’t remember a time when Republican didn’t scream law and order and that the Democrats were “soft on crime”. Of course, many Democrats had to jump onboard, the same way that LBJ admitted that he knew escalation in Vietnam was wrong, but he had to because he was afraid of being labelled “soft on communism.”

    Of course, beyond the gun fetish, we have always admired the “tough guy” – If we only let Dirty Harry loose, he’d clean up the streets – or John Wayne would clean up Dodge or whatever

    Law’n’order – another American obsession – with the help of the GOP

  19. Just Replace Health and Health Care Industry in this paragraph and you get the same tune, second verse.

    Bottom line: American policy choices feed a “criminal justice industry”–without doing much to eliminate crime. As Rubin writes, different criminal justice policies “very likely could allow us to spend less money, lower incarceration rates, reduce the human and opportunity costs, and increase personal safety.”

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