n + 1 on Raising the Crime Rate

by Reihan Salam

I found n + 1’s essay on mass incarceration frustrating, in part because it touches on themes that William Stuntz, Mark Kleiman, and Ross Douthat and I, among many others, have raised in language that is far more strident and alienating than seems entirely constructive. The authors favors the “abolition” of the present regime of mass incarceration, whereas Stuntz, Kleiman, et al. favor a meliorist approach, e.g., a shift away from the excessive use of incarceration and towards more effective deterrent strategies. Kleiman has argued that we might shift to an equilibrium that involves both less incarceration and less crime, and he makes a convincing case. Stuntz, in a similar vein, has called for shifting resources towards increasing the size of police forces, a policy that Jens Ludwig and John Donohue suggest has proven successful in the past, and away from long prison sentences, etc. 

All that said, the essay does usefully challenge a number of left-of-center shibboleths. It offers a more accurate history of the political rise of mass incarceration (i.e., that it was driven by liberal Republicans and centrist Democrats) and it intriguingly embraces the notion of a “well-armed citizenry” as a concession to what it contends is the brute fact that its abolitionist agenda would lead to a palpable increase in urban violence. 

One wonders if the author is staking out a “left flank” in the prison reform debate, thus shifting Kleiman and, say, Peter Moskos to the “sensible center.” Perhaps what we’re seeing is a clever exercise in Overton Window management that will redound to the benefit of the author and the wider public conversation. 

P.S. Sara Mayeux, a staunch advocate of criminal justice reform from the left, offers valuable insight on the essay in question.