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Crime and Punishment
Trouble Ahead for Prison Reformers

Political scientists sometimes say that Americans are “symbolically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” In plain English, that means a majority of voters identify philosophically with limited government principles, but tend to favor sustaining or expanding specific public programs when push comes to shove.

When it comes to criminal justice reform, however, the pattern might look a little bit different. According to a new Vox/Morning Consult poll, Americans favor reducing the prison population in the abstract, but strongly oppose the type of dramatic sentencing readjustment that would be required to do so. Call it symbolically libertarian, but operationally Jacksonian. Vox:

Do Americans really want to end mass incarceration? Or do they simply want to cut prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders?

These are two different questions: Although much of the focus on prison reform over the past few years has gone to nonviolent drug offenders, the rapid growth of the US prison population since the 1960s — which put America above even Russia and China in incarceration — was actually driven by longer sentences for violent crime.

A new poll by Morning Consult and Vox gives some insight: Americans agree there are too many people in prison — but they’re only willing to cut sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, not violent criminals.

Thanks to high-profile media coverage of non-violent drug offenders put away for long stints, most Americans believe that this is the main driver of mass incarceration, when in fact—as we and other commentators have tried to point out—drug offenders make up a small minority of those behind bars. And people convicted only of drug possession—rather than trafficking or some other, more serious drug-related offense—make up a tinier minority still.

The primary cause of mass incarceration is not the drug war, but the extraordinary crime wave that started in the 1970s and didn’t taper off until the mid-1990s. About 10 years after the crime wave came to a close, the incarceration rate started ticked downward as well: It’s a little-known fact that the number of Americans in prison stabilized and then started to decline modestly during the late Bush years.

The success of the criminal justice reform movement also contributed to the decline. With Americans enjoying historically low crime rates, a number of states reduced sentences for various low-level offenses. (There is some debate as to whether these measures have contributed to the recent spike in violent crime in urban areas across the country).

At Via Meadia, we have supported and still support efforts to reform the criminal justice system—reducing prosecutorial leverage and sending more cases to trial, hiring more cops, and prioritizing rehabilitation over incarceration for people convicted only of simple drug possession. But there are probably no responsible measures that could be taken at this moment to “end mass incarceration,” which Vox defines as a 50 percent reduction in the prison population. Not many people want to go back to 1980-style system, where the average time served for murder was about five years.

The bottom line: While making sentences smarter and more proportionate could productively cut the prison population, the most plausible path toward a dramatic reduction is a sustained decrease in crime. That’s why mass incarceration opponents should be concerned about the latest uptick, and focus on ways to make sure we don’t reverse the progress of the last two decades.

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  • Anthony

    The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. Moreover, there are approximately six million people on probation or on parole (data as of 2014 for both sentences)

    “…We spend lots of money. Spending on jails and prisons by state and federal governments has risen from $6.9 billion in 1980 to nearly $80 billion today. Private prison builders and prison service companies have spent millions of dollars to persuade state and local governments to create new crimes, impose harsher sentences, and keep more people locked up so that they can earn more profits. Private profit has corrupted incentives to improve public safety, reduce the costs of mass incarceration, and most significantly, promote rehabilitation of the incarcerated. State governments have been forced to shift funds from public services, education, health, and welfare to pay for incarceration, and they now face unprecedented economic crises as a result. The privatization of prison health care, prison commerce, and a range of services has made mass incarceration a money-making windfall for a few and a costly nightmare for the rest of us.” (Bryan Stevenson)

    A real bottom line perhaps.

    • JR

      FG tries to make the same argument all the time. I don’t care whether the system is private or public as long as these “people” are locked up. The fact that somebody made a buck out of keeping a killer of the streets doesn’t fill me with rage, sorry to say…

      • Anthony

        Perhaps, you ought to share your take with FG. There are other Americans (with long ancestry) who views may differ.

        • JR

          I did share my view with FG. This article seems to suggest it is currently the majority one. Will it remain that way? WE’ll see….

          • Anthony

            Disagree as you will. Disagreement noted. Your sentiment expressed last time TAI posted on incarceration and FG responded (no need for redundancy). Good Night.

      • f1b0nacc1

        You know that I have little sympathy for most of FG’s opinions, but like Hitler and the autobahns, occasionally he is correct. The privatization of prisons produces massive conflicts of interests, and the abuses are too well documented to ignore. I don’t disagree with you that there are plenty of ‘people’ (and yes, I agree that they are only defined as such using very, very loose definitions…), but as a civilized society, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that justice (and punishment is part of justice) is done.

        • JR

          MY larger point is that I don’t really care how it is done and by whom, as long as it is done. Prison reform has been a favorite of reformists for hundreds of years and the end results have always been at best sub-par. Have you watched the latest HBO mini-series “The Night Of”. It does a pretty devastating inditement (fictionalized, of course) of prison system.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Actually we agree about most of this (U Chi alums stick together?), my only comment is that it is unlikely that privatized prisons will make the reforms. Granted, I don’t have greater hopes for the government run ones, but at least in that case they are (in theory at least) accountable to somebody.

            I haven’t seen ‘The Night Of’, but I will make a point of doing so. Thank you…

    • LarryD

      In fact, national crime rates exploded in the 1960s (along with campus
      unrest, anti-war protests, and the emergence of the youth/drug culture),
      creating a legitimate popular concern about public safety and domestic
      security, which Republican politicians addressed in a responsible
      manner. (The national homicide rate doubled between 1960 and 1980, for
      example.) The fact that crime control was an effective wedge issue for
      Republicans doesn’t mean that they were wrong or operating with corrupt

      “… The sensitivity of crime as a political issue declined during the 1990s,
      as crime rates sharply fell, but as criminologist Barry Latzer of the
      City University of New York convincingly documents in his book The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in America
      (2016), the change was in response to the adoption of tough criminal
      justice measures such as increased incarceration of offenders, longer
      prison sentences, tightened parole, and passage of anti-drug laws. We
      could easily see a return to the high crime rates of the 1960s and 1970s
      if those law-and-order measures were reversed or watered down (as some
      observers contend we are now witnessing with the “Ferguson Effect” in
      several major cities due to a reduced police presence).

      “Writing earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal,
      Latzer noted that many prevailing views regarding “mass incarceration”
      (some of which are echoed by Right on Crime) are based on factual
      misperceptions. It is, says Latzer, important to note that imprisonment
      is driven largely by violent crime—making it no easy matter to simply
      reduce incarceration. He points out as well that the “mass” in “mass
      incarceration” is somewhat hyperbolic. Less than one-half of 1 percent
      of the U.S. population is serving time in prison
      , according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
      Also the proportion of black Americans who are incarcerated, that is,
      1.2 percent of black Americans, is high compared with the proportion of
      white Americans (0.25 percent) but is not high in absolute terms

      • Anthony

        And just what are you attempting to justify (explain) here!

    • Angel Martin

      America actually has a massive underincarceration problem. The Uniform Crime Reports actually total less than half of the criminal victimizations reported to the National Crime Victimization Survey.

      “Highlights” from 2014 criminality include more than 3 million Americans victimized by a violent attack. And more than 10 million households with a property crime victimization.

      Even with LarryD’s reminder that criminal perpetrators follow a power law distribution, there must be millions of additional criminals running loose.

      Round them up and lock them away !

      • Anthony

        Martin, three words: Kruger-Dunning Effect!

        • Angel Martin

          “More definitively, the drive to present the self (or one’s position) in a positive light has been one of the major findings of 20th century social psychology ”

          • Anthony

            “People with severe gaps in knowledge and expertise typically fail to recognize how little they know and how badly they perform.” We’re done Martin.

          • Angel Martin

            I may not know much. But I do know that there are two sources of USA criminal incidence data. And I do know that the “facts” around criminal incidence are derived from the data source that shows far lower rates of criminality.

            But hey! What’s that against a guy who can cut and paste self-referential quotes from Dunning and Kruger ?

          • Anthony

            Martin, I don’t cut and paste too simple and requires no thought. Dunning-Kruger reference (as I did months ago) is too direct you without specificity – so stay in your lane.

          • Angel Martin

            “Dunning-Kruger intimation (as I did months ago) is too direct you without specificity”

            that’s ” … to direct you without specificity…” BTW

          • Anthony

            You’re right Martin (I used too instead of to in my haste) thanks for the 5th grade English correction!

          • Angel Martin

            Just trying to be helpful. You see, it undermines your fancy talk when you make basic grammatical errors.

          • Anthony

            No fancy talk Martin (and to err is human) just writing to an audience that does not include you (no disrespect intended).

  • LarryD

    Criminologists have noted the the distribution of criminal behavior is a power distribution. So Pareto’s “Law” applies, the majority of crime is committed by a minority of criminals. Lock the multiple repeat offenders up, and viola! Crime drops. Let them back out, crime spikes again.

    You want to get at the “root” causes? Then you will have to reform welfare, because welfare discourages family formation, has since LBJ, and intact families are the best crime preventive. The Social Conservatives have had this right since the 1960s, when the “Great Society” was passed.

  • Frank Natoli

    To a Democrat, “broken windows” means a ridiculous excuse is used to incarcerate a person of color.
    To a non-Democrat, “broken windows” means a judge-proof reason to stop an individual, of any color, and surprisingly discover that the individual has outstanding bench warrants, or outstanding arrest warrants, or has skipped probation, or otherwise belongs in the custody of the state. And when Giuliani and Bratton applied “broken windows” to NYC, the “normal” murder rate of 2,000 dropped below 600, i.e., below what the much smaller city of Chicago is on its way to having this calendar year.
    The difference? Chicago ignores its “broken windows”.
    Keep certain violent people incarcerated, color-blind, reduce violent crime substantially.
    But that’s not what Democrats want.

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