The truth about ending “mass incarceration”

Yes, we have too many people in prisons.  Yes, we have too many non-violent drug offenders in prisons.  But, we cannot solve our mass incarceration problem simply by releasing all the non-violent drug offenders.  The simple truth is that we have to massively re-think how we deal with violent criminals if we want to make a serious dent (and we sure as hell need to).  Nice summary of the latest work from Criminologist John Pfaff in a recent Wonkblog post.

Consistent with Pfaff’s analysis, drug crime convictions account for the incarceration of fewer than 1 in 6 state prison inmates. Also, drug offenses don’t contribute to the appalling racial disparities in imprisonment. The white rate of being sentenced for drug crimes (15 percent) is actually slightly higher than that for blacks (14.9 percent) and Hispanics (14.6 percent). Reducing sentences for nonviolent drug criminals would thus not only have a small impact on mass incarceration, it could also worsen racial disparities in imprisonment rates.

 In contrast, and again consistent with Pfaff’s thesis, violent offenses explain the majority of mass imprisonment. They also drive racial disparities in imprisonment because the rate for whites (46.6 percent) is significantly lower than that for blacks (57.8 percent) and Hispanics (58.7 percent).

Given the outsize role of violent crime in mass imprisonment, what should be done about it?  Pfaff favors “cutting long sentences for people convicted of violence, even for those with extensive criminal histories, since almost everyone starts aging out of crime by their 30s.” He also advocates for relying less on prison altogether and expanding community-based anti-violence programs that have strong evidence of preventing violence in the first place.

Even better, is Pfaff’s own piece in the WSJ:

There is an obvious rejoinder, of course: Don’t we need to keep people convicted of violence locked up for long periods? Isn’t this how we have kept the crime rate down for so long?

The answer to both of those questions is, “No, not likely.” Simply put, long prison sentences provide neither the deterrence nor the incapacitation effects that their proponents suggest. (There may be moral arguments for long sentences, but that is a separate issue from public safety.)

Consider deterrence. It seems logical that long sentences would scare people away from committing crimes. But a long line of studies makes it clear that longer sentences don’t really deter would-be criminals. Those contemplating crime often don’t know how long sentences are, or even that sentences have gotten longer.

More important, those who are most likely to engage in violence and antisocial behavior tend to be very present-minded. They don’t think a lot about tomorrow. What really deters them, if anything does, is the risk of getting caught in the first place: policing and arrests, not prison sentences.

But our policies generally get this backward, emphasizing punishment over police work. Even as states have passed tougher and tougher sentencing laws, the rates for solving crimes have remained low, even for serious offenses. In 2015, around 60% of murders resulted in an arrest (down from over 80% in 1970). Police made arrests in only half of all serious assaults that year, and in about a third of all robberies and forcible rapes.

Even if longer sentences don’t deter, however, perhaps they are effective at incapacitating people who pose serious risks? At one level, this is inarguably true: As long as someone is in prison, he cannot hurt someone else (at least no one outside of prison).

But if incapacitation is the goal, our policies should detain someone only as long as necessary but no longer. The U.S. spends about $200 billion a year on criminal justice and about $80 billion just on corrections. There are real costs to keeping people locked up too long and admitting too many people to prison in the first place.

“Violent offender” is a common term in the criminal-justice debate, but it points to a deep problem in how we approach incapacitation. Calling someone convicted of a violent crime a “violent offender” suggests that this identity is who he is: He is a violent person. But, with very few exceptions, this is incorrect.

Violence is a phase, not a state. People age into violent behavior and age out of it: A 24-year-old is more violent than a 7-year-old or a 60-year-old. It’s true that some people are more prone to violence than their peers, but almost everyone exhibits some sort of bell-curved trajectory of violence over their lives. Young men are simply more prone to violence than any other demographic group.

It is almost impossible, however, to predict how violent a young person will be in the future. Imposing harsh sanctions for a first violent act needlessly detains many people who are not serious future risks. In addition — and somewhat counterintuitively — by the time a person in his 30s has generated a long criminal history suggesting that he poses a continuing risk, he is likely to have started “aging out” of crime, violent behavior in particular.

A prominent study of hundreds of at-risk men that tracked their behavior from ages 7 to 70, for example, found that most started to engage in crime in their late teens and began to stop in their mid to late 20s. Only about 10% continued to offend consistently into their 30s, and only about 3% did so at high rates.

My previous optimism about genuine progress in criminal justice reform is strongly tempered by having a couple of “law and order” morons like Trump and Sessions in charge, but, at least it’s pretty damn clear what we need to do.  Of course, it’s been clear we need to re-think the “war on drugs” for a long time and there’s been precious little progress on that.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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