Pubdate: Fri, 02 Oct 2015
Source: Dayton Daily News (OH)
Copyright: 2015 Dayton Daily News
Author: David Brooks, He writes for the New YorkTimes.


Pretty much everybody from Barack Obama to Carly Fiorina seems to 
agree that far too many Americans are stuck behind bars. And pretty 
much everybody seems to have the same explanation for how this 
destructive era of mass incarceration came about.

First, the war on drugs got out of control, meaning that many 
nonviolent people wound up in prison. Second, mandatoryminimum 
sentencing laws led to a throw-away-thekey culture, with long and 
pointlessly destructive prison terms.

It's true that mass incarceration is a horrific problem. Back in the 
1970s the increase in incarceration did help reduce the crime

rate, maybe accounting for a third of the drop. But today's 
incarceration levels do little to deter crime while they do much to 
rip up families, increase racial disparities and destroy lives.

The popular explanation for how we got here, however, seems to be 
largely wrong, and most of the policy responses flowing from it may 
therefore be inappropriate.

The drug war is not even close to being the primary driver behind the 
sharp rise in incarceration. About 90 percent of America's prisoners 
are held in state institutions. Only 17 percent are in for a 
drug-related offense, or less than 1 in 5.

Moreover, the share of people imprisoned for drug offenses is 
dropping sharply, down by 22 percent between 2006 and 2011. Writing 
in Slate, Leon Neyfakh emphasized that if you released every drug 
offender from state prison today, you'd reduce the population only to 
1.2 million from 1.5 million.

The mandatory-minimum theory is also problematic. Experts differ on 
this, but some of the most sophisticated work with the best data sets 
has been done by John Pfaff of Fordham Law School.

His research suggests that while it's true that lawmakers passed a 
lot of measures calling for long prison sentences, if you look at how 
much time inmates actually served, not much has changed over the past 
few decades.

So, what does explain it? Pfaff's theory is that it's the 
prosecutors. District attorneys and their assistants have gotten a 
lot more aggressive in bringing felony charges. Twenty years ago they 
brought felony charges against about 1 in 3 arrestees. Now it's 
something like 2 in 3. That produces a lot more plea bargains and a 
lot more prison terms.

I asked Pfaff why prosecutors are more aggressive. He's heard 
theories. Maybe they are more political and they want to show 
toughness to raise their profile to impress voters if they run for 
future office. Maybe the police are bringing stronger cases. 
Additionally, prosecutors are usually paid by the county but prisons 
by the state, so prosecutors tend not to worry about the financial 
costs of what they do.

Two final points. Everybody is railing against the political 
establishment and experts and experienced politicians. But social 
problems are invariably more complex than they look.

Changing prosecutor behavior might be a start. Lifting the spirits of 
inmates, as described in the outstanding Atlantic online video 
"Angola for Life," can also help. But the fundamental situation won't 
be altered without a comprehensive surge, unless we flood the zone 
with economic, familial, psychological and social repair.
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