What it really takes to reduce mass incarceration

I came across this John Pfaff piece in December and it went straight into the Public Policy syllabus.  Great summary of the politics and policy of mass incarceration and just how hard it will be to make real and meaningful change.  It’s a little on the longer side than most stuff I share, but if you want to understand criminal justice policy in America better there’s probably few better things you could do than take 5-10 minutes to read this.  That said, hey, this is a blog, so excerpts:

Our continuing legacy of racial segregation further amplifies this punitiveness. Wealthier, whiter suburban voters often wield disproportionate electoral influence when it comes to electing the prosecutor. These voters like the feeling of crime going down—but they face none of the costs of aggressive policies. After all, it is not their brothers or fathers or uncles or sons who face the unnecessary police stops or arrests or indictments or convictions or prison terms. Those costs are disproportionately borne by poorer people of color in the city, whom those voters do not know or even interact with.

These problems have always been with us. But they are more problematic now because as our prisons have grown, so, too, have the groups that benefit from them—and who thus have an incentive to manipulate people’s punitiveness and fear of crime for their own ends. Though many would at this juncture quickly point to private prison firms, they are not the main ones “profiting” off prisons. They hold about 9 percent of the nation’s prisoners and generally have little impact on policy…

It is various public sector actors who truly benefit. About two-thirds of $50 billion we spend on prisons—$33 billion or so—goes to the wages and benefits of prison staff. It is not surprising, then, that (public sector) correctional officer unions fight reforms, given how much is at stake. That many if not most prisons are located in economically distressed areas and provide some of the few well-paying jobs in the region only magnifies this effect…

It was never going to be possible to significantly scale back our outsized reliance on prisons easily. Mass incarceration did not arise by accident or due to one or two small mistakes. It is the product of a deep, racially driven punitiveness, combined with a vast array of incentives that consistently make harshness politically safe and leniency dangerous. Our seven-year reduction in prison populations is certainly something to celebrate, but those reductions are modest and always vulnerable. And they will remain modest and vulnerable unless we tackle some very difficult issues, such as how we treat violence and the even the basic design of our criminal justice systems.

Lots more good and important stuff.  If you’ve ever thought that mostly we just need to ease up on non-violent drug offenders, then you really need to read this.

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

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