In some ways, the term “mass incarceration” is a misnomer. The term immediately conjures images of rounding up large numbers of people at one time, most of them innocent of a crime, much as the Nazis rounded up Jews during the Holocaust or Stalin prosecuted his purges.
What an increasingly great number of people on both the left and the right are calling “mass incarceration” doesn’t quite fit that image. In the United States, people are usually picked off—that is, arrested—one by one, for individual acts. More importantly, virtually all of the people, mostly African-American males, incarcerated because of the overly strict sentencing laws laid down in the 1980’s and 1990’s committed a real crime.
What people are rightfully questioning now are whether what those arrested and convicted did should have been crimes and whether the sentences for those crimes were too long.
The numbers are truly shameful. A mere 5% of the world’s population resides in the United States, and yet we curate 25% of all the Earth’s prisoners. An inordinate number of our prisoners are African-American males.
Extreme rightwingers such as the Koch brothers are joining progressives to demand an end to the laws that led to American mass incarceration, such as three-strikes-you’re-out laws. The primary motivation stated by most conservatives for wanting to end mass incarceration is fiscal. They are sick and tired of spending gobs of money to house prisoners who did nothing more than sell a little weed.
Among liberals, the fiscal concerns resonate less than basic humanitarianism: these people did not deserve to go to prison for these victimless crimes. We have ruined the lives of a two generations of African-American men and their families. Wouldn’t we have been better off if the money spent on warehousing human beings had been funneled into educating them? That’s basically the argument of progressives, and I agree with it.
It’s ironic that right and left unite on the issue of ending mass incarceration, because from the late 1960’s onwards, the cry for higher sentencing laws came from the near left (AKA mainstream Democrats) as much as from conservatives, if not more so, as Radley Balko points out in The Rise of the Warrior Cop.
It may befuddle many at first as to why the Koch brothers would divert their attention from killing unions, suppressing the minimum wage and fighting needed safety and environmental regulations to take on prison reform. But consider this: A goodly share of the Koch political spending focuses on initiatives which suppress the price of labor. Because the Baby Boomers who are retiring are followed by the baby-busting Generation X, many labor economists are predicting labor shortages for a while. Injecting relatively unproductive prison labor into the labor pool will serve to hold down wages.
By supporting the end of laws that have produced the mass incarceration phenomenon, the Kochs are abandoning their natural ally, the prison privatization industry, who, of course, oppose lowering sentences. Remember that prison privatization money helped to fuel the lobbying that led to these ridiculous laws. What I would like to know is who was it—the lobbyists, the think tank wonks, Congress, some organization such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the staffs of successive state and federal executives—who dreamed up laws that so nicely tend to throw more blacks than whites in jail?
The prison privatization industry and others who want to maintain these Draconian sentencing practices offer the same defense as do police departments all over the country for such absurd practices as racial profiling and stop-and-frisk policies: it has dramatically lowered the crime rate. FYI, the gun industry uses the same argument in backing the many new laws that make it easier for people to carry guns in public and legally shoot other people.
It is true the crimes of all types are down dramatically since the early 1990’s all over the country, everywhere, that is, but on television and in the movies. A simpleton might conclude that some combination of expanded sentences that discriminate against one group and enactment of right-to-carry laws were the reason crime declined so much.
But the simpleton would be wrong.
The latest repudiation of the mass incarceration movement comes from Oliver Roeder, Lauren-Brooke Eisen and Julia Bowling of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, whose recent What Caused the Crime Decline? analyzes the various factors that may have contributed to the decline in the crime rate.
Available online for free, What Caused the Crime Decline? analyzes virtually all of the possible factors leading to a decline in the crime rate using the most complete reports and advanced computer modeling techniques. Roeder, Eisen and Bowling divide the recent past into two parts, 1990-1999 and 2000-2013. Different factors were important factors in the decline of crime in each of these eras. For example, the aging population was an important reason crime declined between 1990 and 1999, but not afterwards. Decreased alcohol consumption was important in both periods. The growth in the number of police on the beat helped reduce crimes between 1990 and 1999, whereas afterwards it was the introduction of new computer programs that identify crime patterns.
Increased incarceration was a minor factor before 2000, reducing crime a mere 6%. After 2000, it has not been a factor at all. FYI, neither enactment of looser gun laws nor the use of the death penalty have any effect on crime rates.
We should note that historical studies have tended to agree that throughout recorded history the main factor determining the crime rate has been the population of males between the ages of 16-49. By that consistent rule of thumb, the crime rate should have nudged up after the turn of the century. What we really are arguing about is not why the crime rate is so low, but why it has remained down.
The big question is: was it worth billions of dollars and those millions of ruined lives of prisoners and their families to achieve what may have been an additional 6% reduction in crime. If crime were 6% higher than it is today, but still well below the level of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, would anyone even notice? Let’s assume that we decriminalize the petty drug offences and other victimless crimes that put so many people in prison. Wouldn’t the increase in the rate of crime by ending mass incarceration be even less, since actions we now consider crimes would no longer be?
Warning to those who think emptying the prisons will enable us to reduce government expenses: some of the money now spent on prisons will need to be used rehabilitate and train the victims of mass incarceration on how to live in the modern world. Instead of returning the rest of the savings to the wealthy in the form of lower taxes, it should be used to improve public education, provide job training, make the court system more accessible, train police in community policing techniques and make other improvements to the criminal justice system and social network. Jobs as prison guards will be lost, but there will be an increases demand for social workers and teachers, so the economy won’t suffer. Perhaps the inhumane private prison industry will go the way of slavery and the horse-and-buggy.
We haven’t been able to overcome the fear-mongers and reduce military budgets, end domestic spying or pass adequate gun control laws. So just because liberals have entered into an unholy alliance with the Kochs does not mean that mass incarceration laws are ending anytime soon. And thus continues the mortal stain of racism which has poisoned this country since before its inception.