Myths and Realities of 'Mass Incarceration'

There is an excellent article from the print edition of National Review that was posted online due to its timeliness. The author, Stephanos Bibas, is a professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania and has also served as a federal prosecutor.

Bibas explodes many of the liberal myths about "mass incarceration" -- not the least of which is that people are in jail because they committed a crime, not because police are roaming the streets herding people into prisons. Somehow, the liberal narrative about mass incarceration never gets around to the fact that most felons are in prison for committing violent crimes.

Two days later, Obama became the first sitting president to visit a prison. Speaking immediately after his visit, the president blamed mandatory drug sentencing as a “primary driver of this mass-incarceration phenomenon.” To underscore that point, he met with half a dozen inmates at the prison, all of whom had been convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. Three days earlier, he had commuted the federal prison terms of 46 nonviolent drug offenders, most of whom had been sentenced to at least 20 years’ imprisonment.

The president is echoing what liberal criminologists and lawyers have long charged. They blame our prison boom on punitive, ever-longer sentences tainted by racism, particularly for drug crimes. Criminologists coined the term “mass incarceration” or “mass imprisonment” a few decades ago, as if police were arresting and herding suspects en masse into cattle cars bound for prison. Many blame this phenomenon on structural racism, as manifested in the War on Drugs.

Indeed, as Bibas points out, the truth of the matter is pretty much the opposite:

President Obama’s and Alexander’s well-known narrative, however, doesn’t fit the facts. Prison growth has been driven mainly by violent and property crime, not drugs. As Fordham law professor John Pfaff has shown, more than half of the extra prisoners added in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s were imprisoned for violent crimes; two thirds were in for violent or property crimes. Only about a fifth of prison inmates are incarcerated for drug offenses, and only a sliver of those are in for marijuana. Moreover, many of these incarcerated drug offenders have prior convictions for violent crimes. The median state prisoner serves roughly two years before being released; three quarters are released within roughly six years.

For the last several decades, arrest rates as a percentage of crimes — including drug arrests — have been basically flat, as have sentence lengths. What has driven prison populations, Pfaff proves convincingly, is that arrests are far more likely to result in felony charges: Twenty years ago, only three eighths of arrests resulted in felony charges, but today more than half do. Over the past few decades, prosecutors have grown tougher and more consistent.

In other words, as the public demanded a better law enforcement and justice system, we have gotten more bang for the buck. Prosecutors have slapped felony charges on offenders more often, thus sending more people to prison.

Despite what the activists complain about, taking violent felons off the streets has had a huge impact on the drop in violent crime, making neighborhoods and communities safer.

But after destroying the liberal narrative on mass incarceration, Bibas takes conservatives to task for not supporting the kinds of reforms that would, if not rehabilitate, make it less likely that a felon would end up back in prison.