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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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