Thanks for the kind post, David.
Many of the comments to my last post took issue with the claim that America’s enormous prison is a serious social problem, and that “pretty much everyone familiar with the justice system” agrees with that sentiment. I shouldn’t have used those words; obviously, there are reasonable and decent people who disagree with that claim.
Here’s what I should have said in that opening paragraph.
Virtually all academics who study crime and/or criminal justice do agree with that claim. Both James Q. Wilson and John DiIulio, the leading conservative intellectuals of the last generation on the subjects of crime and punishment, agree with that claim. Every conservative and/or Republican law professor I know who teaches and writes about criminal justice agrees with the claim. (For what it’s worth, I’m a registered Republican, and voted for the current President Bush twice.) All the liberal Democrats I know in my line of work agree with the claim, and blame conservative Republicans for the problem: one reason I wrote the post the way I did.
During the 1990s, I participated in a police training program run by the FBI at Quantico, Virginia, where I spoke with several thousand local police officers. At the beginning of that decade, the overwhelming majority of those officers saw their chief job as locking up more criminals. By decade’s end, those police officers were mostly looking for ways to keep crime under control without putting more men behind bars—because, in their view, too many are behind bars as it is. Occasionally, I speak to groups of judges. The large majority of the ones I’ve met—again, conservatives and liberals alike—say the same thing: mass incarceration in black neighborhoods has long since passed the point of diminishing returns, and is probably counterproductive.
Here’s the kicker: even if you believe, as I don’t, that all of the two million-plus prison and jail inmates deserve the punishment they’ve received, mass incarceration is still a bad and dangerous practice. In the 1990s and this decade, the jurisdictions that saw the biggest crime drops were the jurisdictions that locked up the fewest criminals, not the most. Deterring crime requires not only that would-be criminals fear punishment; it requires that would-be offenders fear the stigma that criminal punishment carries. When a prison term becomes a rite of passage, even a badge of honor for young men in high-crime communities, deterrence fails. At the level at which we currently imprison young black men, that sensibility is either bound to take root soon, or already has. That isn’t just me talking; you can read Daniel Nagin’s analysis of short- and long-term deterrence in Crime & Justice, vol. 23, beginning at page 1. Nagin is probably the leading criminologist in America today.
All that said, I basically agree with one of Heather McDonald’s claims in a recent article: that America’s enormous, disproportionately black prison population is not primarily the product of white racism. (Link: here.) Urban crime—meaning, disproportionately, black crime—has become an issue politicians in both parties use to seek white suburban and small-town votes. That isn’t racism—it’s politics; politicians always strive to seize on issues that expand their pool of voters and contract the other side’s pool. If the politics of crime is racist, then liberal, pro-civil rights politicians are as guilty of racism as ordinary bigots who are indifferent to the fate of black communities. When we reach that point, the word “racism” has lost its bite. White voters and politicians have been grossly inattentive to the effects of the policies they promote, and the policies themselves are, I believe, bad ones. Still, there is a big difference between bigotry and bad judgment.
On the other hand, I do NOT agree with McDonald that the black portion of the prison population is simply a function of high black crime rates. As I explained in an earlier post, urban blacks are systematically underpunished for violent crime, and vastly overpunished for drug crime. It’s a complicated story, not easily reducible to the good-and-evil dichotomies that Americans tend to embrace in conversations about crime and criminal punishment.
The solution to the problem of swollen prison populations, in my view, is to give more power over policing and criminal punishment in high-crime city neighborhoods to people who live in those neighborhoods. A century ago, that’s how criminal justice worked in Northern cities—and both crime rates and imprisonment rates were much lower than they are today. To put the point another way, outside the South, American criminal justice used to be governed by a kind of neighborhood democracy. Today, the system is governed by a democracy of angry neighbors. That’s a change for the worse.