It is what Heather Mac Donald—the most knowledgeable writer on criminal justice, who hasn’t been in prison, writing today—does so well in City Journal.
I did time in El Reno FCI and the picture painted by the presidential visit is wildly different from the prison I remember—though my sojourn there was many, many years ago.
In July 2015, President Obama paid a press-saturated visit to a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma. The cell blocks that Obama toured had been evacuated in anticipation of his arrival, but after talking to six carefully prescreened inmates, he drew some conclusions about the path to prison. “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” the president told the waiting reporters.
The New York Times seconded this observation in its front-page coverage of Obama’s prison excursion. There is but a “fine line between president and prisoner,” the paper noted. Anyone who “smoked marijuana and tried cocaine,” as the president had as a young man, could end up in the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, according to the Times.
This conceit was preposterous. It takes a lot more than marijuana or cocaine use to end up in federal prison. But the truth didn’t matter. Obama’s prison tour came in the midst of the biggest delegitimation of law enforcement in recent memory. Activists, politicians, and the media have spent the last year broadcasting a daily message that the criminal-justice system is biased against blacks and insanely draconian. The immediate trigger for that movement, known as Black Lives Matter, has been a series of highly publicized deaths of black males at the hands of the police. But the movement also builds on a long-standing discourse from the academic Left about “mass incarceration,” policing, and race.
Now that discourse is going mainstream. As the press never tires of pointing out, some high-profile figures on the right are joining the chorus on the left for deincarceration and decriminalization. Newt Gingrich is pairing with left-wing activist Van Jones, and the Koch brothers have teamed up with the ACLU, for example, to call for lowered prison counts and less law enforcement. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill support reducing or eliminating mandatory sentences for federal drug-trafficking crimes, in the name of racial equity.
At the state and city levels, hardly a single criminal-justice practice exists that is not under fire for oppressing blacks. Traffic monitoring, antitheft statutes, drug patrols, public-order policing, trespass arrests, pedestrian stops, bail, warrant enforcement, fines for absconding from court, parole revocations, probation oversight, sentences for repeat felony offenders—all have been criticized as part of a de facto system for locking away black men and destroying black communities.
There may be good reasons for radically reducing the prison census and the enforcement of criminal laws. But so far, the arguments advanced in favor of that agenda have been as deceptive as the claim that prisons are filled with casual drug users. It is worth examining the gap between the reality of law enforcement and the current campaign against it, since policy based on fiction is unlikely to yield positive results.
Two days before his Oklahoma penitentiary visit, Obama addressed the NAACP national conference in Philadelphia and raised the same themes. The “real reason our prison population is so high,” he said to applause, is that we have “locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before.” This assertion is the most ubiquitous fallacy of the deincarceration movement, given widespread currency by Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. That a president would repeat the myth is a demonstration of the extent to which ideology now rules the White House.
Pace Obama, the state prison population (which accounts for 87 percent of the nation’s prisoners) is dominated by violent criminals and serial thieves. In 2013, drug offenders made up less than 16 percent of the state prison population, whereas violent felons were 54 percent of the rolls and property offenders, 19 percent. (See graph below.) Reducing drug admissions to 15 large state penitentiaries by half would lower those states’ prison count by only 7 percent, according to the Urban Institute.
True, drug traffickers make up a larger (though declining) portion of the federal prison population: half in 2014. But federal prisons hold only 13 percent of the nation’s prison population. Moreover, it is hardly the case that “but for the grace of God,” as Obama put it, he could have been incarcerated in Oklahoma’s El Reno for getting stoned as a student. Less than 1 percent of sentenced drug offenders in federal court in 2014 were convicted for simple drug possession, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and most of those convictions were plea-bargained down from trafficking charges. Contrary to the deincarceration movement, blacks do not dominate federal drug prosecutions. Hispanics were 48 percent of drug offenders sentenced in federal court in 2013, blacks were 27 percent, and whites 22 percent.
Even on the state level, drug-possession convicts are relatively rare. In 2013, only 3.6 percent of state prisoners were serving time for drug possession, often the result of a plea bargain, compared with 12 percent of prisoners convicted for trafficking. Virtually all the possession offenders had long prior arrest and conviction records. The meth users that Tustin, California, police officer Mark Turner encountered in his undercover narcotics days were sentenced to drug classes. “Then they would skip out of the classes and always re-offend,” he says….
The critics of “mass incarceration” love to compare American incarceration rates unfavorably with European ones. Crime is inevitably left out of the analysis. Jeremy Travis and Nicholas Turner, head of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Vera Institute, respectively, penned a classic treatment of this theme in the New York Times in August 2015. Germany’s incarceration rate is one-tenth that of the U.S., they fumed. “To be sure,” they acknowledged, “there are significant differences between the two countries.” And might those “significant differences” have anything to do with crime, perhaps with the fact that the U.S. rate of gun homicide is about 17 times higher than that of Germany? Of course not. No, for Travis and Turner, the key difference is that “America’s criminal justice system was constructed in slavery’s long shadow and is sustained today by the persistent forces of racism.” The same people who denounce American gun violence and call for gun control in a domestic context go silent about gun violence when using Europe as a club to cudgel the American prison system. The U.S. homicide rate is seven times higher than the combined rate of 21 Western developed nations plus Japan, according to a 2011 study by researchers of the Harvard School of Public Health and the UCLA School of Public Health. This disparity is largely fueled by the American firearm homicide rate: 19.5 times higher than in the comparison high-income countries, according to 2003 data. Among 15- to 24-year-olds, Americans kill with guns at nearly 43 times the rate of their counterparts in those same industrialized nations. Since the American prison system is driven by violent crime, it is not surprising that America’s incarceration rate is higher than Europe’s.
Retrieved October 27, 2015 from http://city-journal.org/2015/25_4_decriminalization.html