The Agenda

An Absolute Scandal

The insane refusal of 43 Senate Republicans to back the National Criminal Justice Commission Act. Even Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, easily one of my favorite legislators, covered himself in non-glory on this one by suggesting that the commission might be unconstitutional, despite the fact that all it established was a bipartisan panel empowered to make nonbinding recommendations. 

There were, however, four Senate Republicans who backed the proposal: Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts.

Why do we need a commission? Senator Webb, the sponsor of the proposal, offered a fact sheet recounting the scale of the problem:

The United States has by far the world’s highest incarceration rate. With five per cent of the world’s population, our country now houses twenty-five percent of the world’sreported prisoners. More than 2.3 million Americans are now in prison, and another 5million remain on probation or parole. 

Our prison population has skyrocketed over the past two decades as we have incarceratedmore people for non-violent crimes and acts driven by mental illness or drug dependence. 

The costs to our federal, state, and local governments of keeping repeat offenders in thecriminal justice system continue to grow during a time of increasingly tight budgets. 

Existing practices too often incarcerate people who do not belong in prison, takingresources away from locking up high-risk, violent offenders who are a threat to our communities.

2.3 million + 5 million = 7.3 million. Roughly 24 percent of the 310 million U.S. residents are under the age of 18, leaving us with roughly 235.6 million adults. So that means that 3.1 percent of adults are behind bars, on probation, or on parole right now. There are, of course, millions of ex-offenders.

This population is disproportionately male and disproportionately black, which means that the impact of mass incarceration is particularly significant for African American children. Basically, doing a bid limits your ability to acquire the kind of skills you need to climb the jobs ladder, in part because employers are (understandably) reluctant to hire ex-offenders.

If we’re even incarcerating five percent of these individuals needlessly, we’re causing a massive amount of damage. Why? Apart from the collateral damage on families and children, we might actually make the crime problem worse. The more we incarcerate people, the less severe the stigma associated with being incarcerated. And reducing the stigma actually reduces the effectiveness of incarceration as a deterrent.  

Having grown up in central Brooklyn during the crack epidemic, I have some familiarity with fear of crime. Reducing crime should be an urgent priority, in my view. Even the so-called “great American crime decline” has left us with rates of violent crime radically higher than what we saw in the early 20th century, as William Stuntz observed in his last book:

New York is America’s safest large city, the city that saw crime fall the most and the fastest during the 1990s and the early part of this decade.  Yet New York’s murder rate is 80 percent higher now than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century — notwithstanding an imprisonment rate four times higher now than then.  That crime gap is misleadingly small; thanks to advances in emergency medicine, a large fraction of those early twentieth-century homicide victims would survive their wounds today.  Taking account of medical advances, New York is probably not twice as violent as a century ago, but several times more violent.  At best, the crime drop must be counted a pyrrhic victory.

If locking people up in increasingly large numbers were really the most cost-effective way to keep our cities safe, I’d be all for it. Overwhelming evidence suggests that this is not in fact the case. The people who profit most from today’s approach to mass incarceration are not potential crime victims. Rather, they are the workers — most of them unionized public sector workers — who staff our prisons. 

So yes: why would we want to study more cost-effective alternatives to reducing crime when we can pour billions of dollars in taxpayer money into the hands of an industry that channels that money back into lobbying and political advertising on behalf of longer prison sentences, all to keep the gravy train going?