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No, mass incarceration isn’t a myth

One of the easiest ways to avoid dealing with a problem is to simply deny it exists. This tactic is currently being applied to the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, as most recently demonstrated par excellence in the Wall Street Journal’s appropriately titled article, “The Myth of Mass Incarceration.”

The argument, seen there and elsewhere, boils down to this: ‘Yeah, America has a lot of prisoners, but Americans do a lot of crime. The crime rate spiked from the 1960s to 1990s, so the prison population exploded too. Even so, less than one in 100 Americans is in jail at any given time, which isn’t really a lot. Yes, the prison population is disproportionately minorities, but again, it’s just because they’re doing more crime than white people. And it’s not just nonviolent drug crimes that are getting people locked up; the federal prison population is about half due to drug offenses, but in the much larger state prison population it’s only around 15-20 percent. So even if we released all the drug users today—which we shouldn’t do—there would still be lots of prisoners.’

This is a compelling narrative, especially with a few more numbers thrown in, but it’s ultimately misleading.

Mass incarceration is not a myth, and here are two reasons of many those who say it is have conveniently neglected to mention:

1. You have to look at the dynamic prison population, not a static snapshot. Most assessments of the prison population take a snapshot view. That is, they look at how many people are in prison at a single moment and what crimes got them there. These seems like a reasonable approach, but it’s actually deeply misleading.

The reason for this is that different crimes get different sentences. So, for example, a murderer with a life sentence will show up in every single snapshot measurement for 20 years. But someone who gets arrested for dealing weed might only get three years, and then his spot might be taken by another dealer for the next two years, and so on throughout our two decades of measurements.

If we looked at the dynamic change in the prison population, we’d see that there was one murderer doing a long sentence and maybe six or seven drug offenders doing short sentences. But if we looked only at snapshots, we’d see that each and every year there was one murderer and one drug offender, falsely suggesting that murder is just as common as selling pot.

Looking at real prison statistics with a dynamic approach makes a big difference, too. In fact, once we measure with this more accurate model, it turns out that drug offenses are the single largest category of prisoners at both the federal and state level. They rotate in and out a lot faster, because they usually (though not always) get shorter sentences than violent criminals.

All told, one out of every three prisoners admitted to a state or federal prison is there on drug charges. By comparison, only one in four is there for violent crime.

2. Race does matter in our criminal justice system. Since the drug war is so central to this debate, let’s look at how race affects mass incarceration where drug offenses are concerned.

Black and white people use marijuana at almost identical rates, but black people are four times more likely to be arrested for smoking pot—in fact, “in some states, including Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois, blacks were around eight times as likely to be arrested.”

Once convicted (which is also more likely), black people are usually assured a harsher sentence than white people convicted of the exact same behavior. Black drug offenders are 27 percent more likely to go to jail than their white counterparts (a figure which jumps to a whopping 800 percent in Chicago), and prison time for crimes across the board averages 60 percent longer for blacks than whites.

These are massive differences. And it is wishful thinking at best to suggest that disparities in arrests, conviction, and sentencing are unique to drug offenses. While it is true that young black men in particular are overrepresented in American crime statistics, the way their behavior is handled is not identical to the way it is treated with white offenders. Plus, even in non-drug crimes the effects of the drug war may be partially to blame, much like how alcohol prohibition spiked violent crime in its era.

We haven’t even touched on the impact of mandatory minimum sentencing, the long-term effects of incarceration in a released inmate’s life, and comparative incarceration rates worldwide.

Our criminal justice and penal systems have been unjust and counterproductive in many ways the public is just now beginning to discuss in earnest. These conversations are desperately needed.

Let’s not go back to pretending these problems don’t exist.

Mass incarceration is no myth.

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