A new study from the National Academies strongly suggests that we should reduce the number of people in prison and jail and make it easier for them to reenter society. This is all good. As the report says, things have “gone past the point where the numbers of people in prison can be justified by social benefits.” But, in endorsing the study, the New York Times editorial board, now almost sure to set the tone for the left-wing’s agenda on criminal justice, ignores the history that leads to such high rates of incarceration, understates the crimes committed by people now in prison, and is far too optimistic about the possibility that efforts at “rehabilitation inside prison” coupled with measures that remove “barriers that keep people from rejoining society” can actually solve the same social problems prison did.
History first: We have a lot of people locked up because circumstances demanded it. Quite simply, crime ranked among America’s most pressing political issues between roughly the mid 1950s and mid 1990s. As crime declined—coincident with building more prisons—the problem disappeared from the public imagination. Today, only 2 percent of people tell Gallup pollsters that crime is the nation’s most important problem and, in 2012, neither presidential candidate mentioned it in any of the debates or his acceptance speech. More than a third of Americans considered crime a vital problem as recently as the early 1990s. Today, overall crime rates in the United States (a measure dominated by assaults and thefts) are lower than those in Europe and Canada. Judged by its intended results, mass incarceration has “worked.” We can’t forget that if we want to make good policy.
Second, contrary to the implications flowing from the NYT, others on the left, and a few on the libertarian right, there are very, very few “innocents” being locked up. Most non-violent offenders have done very bad things. The Bureau of Justice Statistics finds that such “non-violent offenders” have long prior records — an average of almost ten arrests and four convictions — and a third all have violent offenses on their records and nearly 10 percent actually used a weapon to commit the “non-violent” crime for which they’re serving time (e.g. a drug dealer who shoots a competitor and then pleads guilty to a narcotics offense). While plenty of sentences are excessive, nobody goes to jail for life for “stealing a pair of socks” as the NYT claims: No state punishes non-violent petty theft as a felony under a “three strikes law.”
Third, although a lot of people (me included) would favor a lot more efforts to help both prisoners within jailhouse walls and after they get out, decades of social science have produced few certain ways of doing this. Many programs that sound good – vocational training, in-prison counseling, literacy classes, even most drug treatment – actually show mixed or negative results. The best evidence suggests that particularly intensive community monitoring of released offenders coupled with “swift and certain” sanctions (usually a brief return to prison or jail) can reduce recidivism a bit but, even under the best of these programs, recidivism remains very, very high. The reality is that changing individual behavior is very, very hard for anyone – just ask anyone who has tried to diet or undergone psychotherapy – and, if anything, people who transgress social norms strongly enough to end up in prison are going to be even harder to change than law-abiding citizens. This means we should tread carefully in changing a policy that, for all of its very real flaws, has worked more-or-less as advertised.
America can—and should—reduce mass incarceration. But we have to recognize where current policies come from, with whom we’re dealing, and the difficulties implicit in getting anybody to change.