The real story behind the political trope, from City Journal.
“Certain must-pass ideological litmus tests have arisen for the 25 declared candidates (so far) seeking the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Perhaps chief among them is subscription to the belief that the American criminal-justice system is racist and overly punitive. This Democratic unanimity makes sense in light of the criticism that many of the leading candidates have faced from activists, left-wing media, and other, more “woke,” presidential hopefuls for their earlier acceptance, or even endorsement, of proactive policing, quality-of-life enforcement, and incarceration as reasonable methods of combating crime.
“JOE BIDEN’S ROLE IN ’90S CRIME LAW COULD HAUNT ANY PRESIDENTIAL BID, ran a prescient 2015 New York Times headline. Doubtless sensing vulnerability, the former vice president and current Democratic front-runner made a Martin Luther King Day speech to Al Sharpton’s National Action Network this year, telling the audience that “I haven’t always been right” about criminal justice and that “white America has to admit there’s still a systematic racism, and it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us.”
“That hasn’t stopped some of Biden’s Democratic opponents (not to mention President Trump) from pushing the incarceration button. California senator Kamala Harris, one of his leading rivals, hit Biden for backing the 1994 omnibus crime bill, which, she says, contributed to “mass incarceration in this country.” Harris herself, though, has met criticism for being too tough on crime in her days as a prosecutor and as California attorney general. New Jersey senator Cory Booker—one of the most outspoken of the candidates on criminal-justice reform—has also had his reformist credentials questioned, with a recent Times story criticizing his “zero-tolerance” approach to crime when serving as Newark’s mayor from 2006 to 2013, citing ACLU complaints. But all the Democrats are striking the same chord. “More people [are] locked up for low-level offenses on marijuana than for all violent crimes in this country,” Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, another top-tier Biden challenger, declared at last year’s We the People Summit. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator known best for his left-wing economic populism, has described felon disenfranchisement as racist voter suppression. And South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg told Out that incarceration is “clearly worsening some of the patterns of racial inequality in our country.”
“Eight of the declared candidates contributed to a recent compendium published by the Brennan Center for Justice, titled Ending Mass Incarceration. The essays provide a useful summation of Democratic talking points on criminal justice. That the United States over-incarcerates is evidenced, reformers say, by the numbers: though it has about 5 percent of the global population, the U.S. houses about a quarter of the prisoners worldwide. America’s high incarceration rate, goes another assertion, is driven by the unjust enforcement of “low-level” and “nonviolent” offenses, particularly drug crimes. A further charge: the system is racist, given how much more likely blacks are to be behind bars compared with whites. Finally, they say that sentences have gotten way too long.
“True, for a subset of America’s prison population, incarceration does not serve a legitimate penological end, either because these individuals have been incarcerated for too long or because they should not have been incarcerated to begin with. Justice dictates that we identify these individuals and secure their releases with haste. But none of the above claims advanced by the presidential hopefuls is correct—and acting on any of them would be disastrous.
“Start with drugs. Contrary to the claims in Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed 2010 bestseller The New Jim Crow, drug prohibition is not driving incarceration rates. Yes, about half of federal prisoners are in on drug charges; but federal inmates constitute only 12 percent of all American prisoners—the vast majority are in state facilities. Those incarcerated primarily for drug offenses constitute less than 15 percent of state prisoners. Four times as many state inmates are behind bars for one of five very serious crimes: murder (14.2 percent), rape or sexual assault (12.8 percent), robbery (13.1 percent), aggravated or simple assault (10.5 percent), and burglary (9.4 percent). The terms served for state prisoners incarcerated primarily on drug charges typically aren’t that long, either. One in five state drug offenders serves less than six months in prison, and nearly half (45 percent) of drug offenders serve less than one year.
“That a prisoner is categorized as a drug offender, moreover, does not mean that he is nonviolent or otherwise law-abiding. Most criminal cases are disposed of through plea bargains, and, given that charges often get downgraded or dropped as part of plea negotiations, an inmate’s conviction record will usually understate the crimes he committed. The claim that drug offenders are nonviolent and pose zero threat to the public if they’re put back on the street is also undermined by a striking fact: more than three-quarters of released drug offenders are rearrested for a nondrug crime. It’s worth noting that Baltimore police identified 118 homicide suspects in 2017, and 70 percent had been previously arrested on drug charges.
“Not only are most prisoners doing time for serious, often violent, offenses; they’ve usually received (and blown) the second chance that so many reformers say they deserve. Justice Department studies from 2000 through 2009 reveal that only about 40 percent of state felony convictions result in a prison sentence. A Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study of violent felons convicted over a 12-year period in America’s 75 largest counties shows that 56 percent of the offenders had a prior conviction record.
“Even though most state prisoners are serious and serial offenders, nearly 40 percent of inmates serve less than a year in prison, with the median time served about 16 months. Lengthy sentences tend to be reserved for the most serious violent crimes—but even 20 percent of convicted murderers and nearly 60 percent of those convicted for rape or sexual assault serve less than five years of their sentences. Nor have sentences gotten longer, as reformers contend. In his book Locked In, John Pfaff—a leader in the decarceration movement—plotted state prison admissions and releases from 1978 through 2014 on a graph. If sentence lengths had increased, the two lines would diverge as admissions outpaced releases; in fact, the lines are almost identical.
“Getting these facts straight is important, especially since reformers unfavorably contrast the U.S.’s criminal-justice system with those of other nations—Western European democracies, in particular—with significantly lower incarceration rates. Because so few American prisoners are serving time for trivial infractions, aligning America’s incarceration numbers with those of, say, England or Germany would require releasing many very serious and frequently violent offenders. Yet many in the decarceration camp have been calling for just such a mass release. The #cut50 initiative, founded by activist and CNN host Van Jones, aims to halve the prison population. Scholars at the Brennan Center have called for an immediate 40 percent reduction in the number of inmates.
“Such drastic cuts could produce significant crime increases, as communities lose the incapacitation benefits that they currently enjoy. Already, there’s no shortage of cautionary examples. In March, the New York Police Department released a montage of security-camera footage that captured ten gang members in East New York, a Brooklyn neighborhood, as they hunted down and killed a man in broad daylight. The chilling images show the victim, 21-year-old Tyquan Eversley (out on bail, facing a rap for armed robbery), running, as his armed assailants give chase. Eversley gets entangled in barbed wire after jumping a fence into someone’s backyard; one of his pursuers hurls what looks like part of a cinder block over the fence at him, as another points his gun over the top and fires five fatal rounds. The rock-slinging thug, according to the NYPD, is 25-year-old Michael Reid, who has since been identified and arrested. Reid, it was subsequently reported, had been recently released from federal custody and was wearing an ankle monitor at the time of the murder.”
Retrieved July 22, 2019 from https://www.city-journal.org/mass-incarceration