Other Voices

Free society picks targets to prevent crime

The judge ruled that Gilberto Valle's plots to kill and eat women were most likely elements of "fantasy role play."
The judge ruled that Gilberto Valle's plots to kill and eat women were most likely elements of "fantasy role play." NYT

The 2002 film Minority Report postulates a future in which a special police unit can detect crimes before they occur and thereby both prevent the crime and punish its perpetrator.

Certainly, preventing crimes is better than pursuing, prosecuting and punishing criminals, but two recent, related news stories illustrate how difficult this is in a free culture like ours.

Gilberto Valle, a former New York City police officer, is the “Cannibal Cop.” In March 2013 he was convicted of conspiring with others in Internet chat rooms to kidnap, torture, rape, cook and eat young women, including his wife.

His lawyer contended that her client never intended to carry out his perverse fantasies, that the crimes were only imagined inside of Valle’s bizarre mind. She said, “These are thoughts, very ugly thoughts, and we don’t prosecute people for their thoughts.”

The jury didn’t see it that way. Nevertheless, a year later a judge overturned the guilty verdict, citing insufficient evidence that Valle’s chat room activities were anything other than “fantasy role play.”

Now the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has affirmed the judge’s opinion by a 2-1 vote.

The case of the Cannibal Cop still doesn’t entirely settle this basic question of the Internet age (as expressed by The New York Times): “When does a plot discussed in Internet chat rooms cross the line into actual criminality?”

I’m happy to live in a culture that values the privacy of each person’s mind, no matter how gruesome and unseemly, and that we spend time and energy addressing questions like this.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the city council on Nov. 26 authorized a proposal to collect license plate numbers of cars seen in areas known for prostitution and to send the car owners “Dear John” letters.

According to an Associated Press report, similar letters used elsewhere are typically written in a “cordial tone,” reminding recipients that prostitution isn’t a “victimless crime,” nor is it “an act between two consenting adults.”

Civil libertarians have pushed back over this assumption of guilt.

I'll decline to take a position on these two efforts to prevent crimes before they happen, except to note the complexity, controversy and tinge of sanctimony embodied in both.

And to wonder, if we want to prevent crime, why we don’t go for the lower-hanging fruit?

The notion that more educated citizens are much less likely to wind up in prison is thoroughly intuitive. It’s also borne out by study after study.

The American Prospect reported that in 2008, Texas spent $175 million to imprison residents from just 10 neighborhoods in Houston. Of the six Houston schools evaluated “lower-performing,” five are in the neighborhoods with the highest rates of incarceration.

Of the 12 higher-performing schools, eight are in the lowest-incarceration neighborhoods.

Yet while Texas spends more than $21,000 per year to keep an inmate incarcerated, it spends around $9,500 to educate each student.

We’re distracted from the fact that spending more and working harder on education could actually prevent crimes long before they happen.

John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. jcrisp@delmar.edu