The reality of mass incarceration

I’ve been meaning to read John Pfaff’s Locked In since it came out last year.  I assigned it for my PS 313 Criminal Justice Policy “book club” to make sure that I finally would.  It was excellent.  I read so much about politics and policy that it is a rare book that opens my eyes.  This one did.  That said, this German Lopez (of course) Vox article is a terrific summary of the key points.  If you think you know mass incarceration, read it.  Short version: mass incarceration is not about non-violent drug offenders.  It’s not about extremely long sentences (though we have too much of those).  It’s mostly about prosecutors becoming far more zealous in prosecuting people for violent felonies.  You want to deal with mass incarceration, you have to deal with 1) prosecutors, and 2) how we think about violent crime.  Some key highlights from Lopez:

There’s a “Standard Story” that many Americans, particularly on the left, believe about mass incarceration: During the 1970s and ’80s, the federal government dramatically escalated its war on drugs. This alone led to millions of people getting locked up for fairly low-level drug offenses, causing the US prison population to spike. This new prison population is predominantly black, leading to massive racial disparities in the criminal justice system. And all of this happened, not coincidentally, right after the civil rights movement — showing the rise in incarceration was a ploy to oppress black Americans just after they made huge gains.

But in a new book, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, Fordham University criminal justice expert John Pfaff offers a trove of evidence that this narrative is by and large wrong or, at the very least, misses much of the real story.

The “Standard Story” of mass incarceration, as Pfaff calls it, was largely popularized by a 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. Pfaff goes through many facts and statistics to show that this Standard Story gets a lot wrong about the causes and realities of mass incarceration, from the types of crime that people are locked up for (in reality, largely violent offenses) to the areas in which reform is truly needed (with a focus on state and local, not federal, reform).

“The core failing of the Standard Story is that it consistently puts the spotlight on statistics and events that are shocking but, in the grand scheme of things, not truly important for solving the problems we face,” he writes. “As a result, it gives too little attention to the more mundane-sounding yet far more influential causes of prison growth.”

The story that Pfaff carefully describes is different from the standard narrative: It’s not drug offenses that are driving mass incarceration, but violent ones. It’s not the federal government that’s behind mass incarceration, but a whole host of prison systems down to the local and state level. It’s not solely police and lawmakers leading to more incarceration and lengthy prison sentences, but prosecutors who are by and large out of the political spotlight.

And an excerpt from a Marshall project article:

Pfaff’s major data epiphany was that, during the 1990s and 2000s, as violent crime and arrests for violent crime both declined, the number of felony cases filed in state courts somehow went up. A lot. “In the end, the probability that a prosecutor would file felony charges against an arrestee basically doubled, and that change pushed prison populations up even as crime dropped,” he writes.

Pfaff suggests several explanations for this. There were tens of thousands more prosecutors hired across the country in the 1990s and aughts even after the rising crime of the 1980s had stalled out, and the position of district attorney simultaneously became a more politically powerful one. Prosecutors’ discretion, always great, was expanded by courts and legislatures. And public defenders, stuck at the same or lower levels of funding, have not kept up with the growing caseload.

Reformers have overlooked the role of prosecutors, Pfaff reasons, in part because there is no good data on how they use their discretion, and in part because they are simply less visible; about 95 percent of cases end in plea bargains worked out behind closed doors. “We see the police every day; no one is more high-profile in the criminal justice system,” he said in an interview. “Then we think of the judge imposing the sentence.” But prosecutors, and how they work, remain something of a mystery.

Pfaff’s plea, then, is for advocates of reform to look for ways to curb the aggressiveness of prosecutors. He offers a tentative menu of options: establish guidelines for charging and plea bargaining, which New Jersey has already done; make prosecutors pay from their county budgets for the bed space they use in state prisons; and provide more funding for public defenders. And, last but not least, attack public complacency. In 46 states, prosecutors are elected — and 85 percent of them run without opposition. But last year, with money from philanthropist George Soros and energy from Black Lives Matter, insurgent district attorney candidates touting reform prevailed in several cities. And the American Civil Liberties Union has mapped out a three-year plan to increase public scrutiny of prosecutors.

And, just because I’m at it, nice summaries in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, too.

I’ve learned a ton just from following Pfaff on twitter.  If you want to better understand criminal justice in the U.S., you should, too.

Advertisements

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: