Posted on August 15, 2019

What Democrats Get Wrong About Prison Reform

John Pfaff, Politico Magazine, August 14, 2019


Drug crime is not what’s driving the high prison population in the United States. It’s crimes of violence. And this omission has consequences. It means that any “solution” is unlikely to achieve its intended goal and in the meantime society will continue to suffer long-term damage — physical, psychological and economic — from a persistent cycle of unaddressed violent crime.

The numbers are unambiguous.

For all the attention we pay to people convicted of drug crimes, they make up only 15 percent of our state prison populations. Over half the people serving time in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime; half of those convicted of violence — or more than 25 percent of all prisoners — have been convicted of the most serious crimes: murder, manslaughter or sexual assault. Senator Booker (rightly) disagreed with locking people up for life on drug charges, but that’s something that really happens only in the relatively small federal prison system. In state prisons, which hold nearly 90 percent of the nation’s 1.5 million prisoners, almost 95 percent of inmates serving long sentences have been convicted of serious violence, not drugs; about half or more of such inmates were convicted of murder or manslaughter.

All this actually understates the extent to which it is our response to violence, not drugs, that drives mass incarceration. That 15 percent number means that 15 percent of the people in prison were convicted of a drug crime; the underlying facts might be more complicated. Someone, say, arrested for assault and found to have drugs on him at the time of the arrest might agree to a deal in which he pleads guilty to just the drug charge. In the data, this person shows up as a “nonviolent drug offender,” even if the prosecutor demanded prison time on the drug offense only because of the uncharged violence.

This feature actually lurks in the aggregate national data. The share of people in state prisons for drugs did not really start rising until the mid-1980s, and it then began to decline in the early 1990s. These trends seem far more closely linked to patterns in violent crime — particularly the sharp spike in violence in the mid- to late 1980s and then its steady decline over the 1990s and 2000s — than to changes in drug laws, enforcement or use.

Moreover, the significant role that violent crime plays in boosting prison populations is not just the result of the longer sentences imposed on those convicted of such crimes, although that matters (especially for homicide cases). Violent crimes increasingly explain the total number of people we admit to prison every year, as well. In fact, as of 2011 (the most recent year with good data), state prison admissions for violent crimes were about 15 percent larger than those for drug offenses, a gap that has surely grown in recent years as we continue to reduce sanctions for drugs but not violence.


But any sort of substantial reduction in prison populations means eventually changing how we punish violence, and unfortunately much of our “drug” talk actually undermines such efforts. {snip}


And the focus in the debates on drugs likely did more harm than good. Americans already remain quite reluctant to change how we punish violence, in no small part because they misperceive the importance of drugs. A 2016 poll by Vox, for example, reported that a majority of Americans incorrectly think about half (not 15 percent) of people in prison are there for drugs. Compounding that misperception, Vox reported, a majority of liberals, moderates and conservatives alike said they did not favor reductions in prison time for people convicted of violent crimes but who pose little to no risk of re-offending. Are they less inclined to treat one-time violent offenders more leniently because they erroneously believe high incarceration rates can be solved by dealing with drug crime alone? I would argue that is exactly what’s happening. {snip}


And to be clear, changing how we approach violence is not just numerically justified, but actually good policy. The data consistently shows that tough prison sentences provide little additional deterrence over far less aggressive approaches, and often that spending more time in prison actually elevates the risk of future violence and offending, thanks to the traumatic nature of American prisons. Time spent in prison also undermines well-documented pathways out of violence, such as forming stable long-term relationships and gainful employment. And more and more research highlights programs that reduce violence and victimization in more effective — and humane — ways.


{snip} If we freed everyone in prison tomorrow except that 25 percent who are there for murder, manslaughter or sexual assault, we’d still have an incarceration rate higher than that of almost every European country. {snip}