The Corner

The Real Sources of the Prison Boom

Last week, Leon Neyfakh of Slate interviewed John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham who has spent the last several years working to understand exactly why incarceration levels in the U.S. are so high. As more and more activists and policymakers on the right and the left have grown alarmed by mass incarceration and its impact on crime, family life, and much else, a few popular theories have emerged about exactly why we Americans imprison so many of our fellow citizens: we put people in prison for too long; our prisons are full of low-level drug offenders; and we’re locking people up even though doing so has no real effect on crime levels. Back in 2009, Pfaff summarized some of his more provocative findings for a lay audience. In short, he’s found that the time served by the median prisoner is in fact very short, and the real issue is that we put large numbers of people in prison for a short time; even if every low-level drug offender were released from prison, the U.S. would still top the charts among market democracies when it comes to putting people in prison (the prison population would drop from 1.6 million to 1.3 million, a number far higher than the 300,000 or so in prison in the 1970s); and there is indeed good reason to believe that incarceration has reduced crime levels, though at far higher cost than, say, investing in preventing crime from occurring in the first place by, say, hiring more police officers. That is, many critics of the incarceration boom are simply ill-informed. This isn’t to say that there is anything wrong with reducing prison sentences that are egregiously or inappropriately wrong, or that we shouldn’t reform our drug policies. Either policy effort could be justified on humanitarian or libertarian grounds. But what Pfaff is telling us is that getting rid of, say, mandatory minimum sentences or legalizing various narcotics won’t solve the mass incarceration problem. 

The observation of Pfaff’s that I found most fascinating is that if we combine the number of people we commit to mental institutions with the number we send to prison, we see a great deal of continuity: 

[I]f we look back historically at the lockup rate for mental hospitals as well as prisons, we have only just now returned to the combined rates for both kinds of incarceration in the 1950s. In other words, we’re not locking up a greater percentage of the population so much as locking people up in prisons rather than mental hospitals. Viewed through this lens, what seems remarkable is not the current era of mass incarceration but the 1960s and ’70s, during which we emptied the hospitals without filling the prisons. 

It is indeed remarkable, particularly when we consider that the deinstitutionalization of the 1960s and 1970s coincided with, and arguably contributed to, a crisis of disorder in many big U.S. cities, the legacy of which still persists. In Pfaff’s interview with Neyfakh, he emphasizes the role of local prosecutors in the persistence of high incarceration levels. He observes that while rising incarceration levels made sense from the 1960s to the late 1980s, as violent crime exploded, crime rates have been falling since 1991, yet prison populations kept going up from 1991 until about 2010. Pfaff’s theory is that the the drivers of high prison populations in this more recent era have been local prosecutors responding to political imperatives. If he’s right, it seems that big top-down criminal justice reforms matter less than getting prosecutors to embrace a new, less punitive approach — or perhaps, as Stephanos Bibas and Richard Bierschbach have recommended in National Review, getting cities to embrace community courts to deal with low-level offenders. They cite the example of Red Hook, Brooklyn, a once-dangerous neighborhood that has had considerable success with its local community court. Recidivism for those tried by community courts is 20 percent lower than those tried in traditional courts, which seems like a pretty solid reason to give the Red Hook model a closer look. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More