Political demands for an end to what activists and the media like to call mass incarceration are all the rage these days, but the bipartisan willingness to look at what works and doesn’t work in today’s broken criminal justice system that has emerged in recent years is being overtaken or hijacked by ideological hucksters who seem more interested in making political statements than in finding real-world solutions to serious problems.
The question of who is in prison and for what reasons is less important to many than making often mythical points. The result has been the propagation of myths that don’t hold up under investigation. One of these is that our jails and prisons are overcrowded because they are filled with small-time drug offenders who don’t belong there. It is true that incarcerating drug users for possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use makes little sense, but to leap to the conclusion that minor drug crimes are the reason this country has so many of its citizens behind bars is nonsensical.
Hillary Clinton’s recent claim that our prisons are stuffed full of marijuana users could only be made by someone who hasn’t spent more than two minutes studying her briefing material. Only a little more than 15 percent of those in our state prisons today are there for drug offenses, and most of those serving time for drug offenses in both the state and federal prisons are not there for smoking a joint, but for dealing in major drugs. Even if every minor drug offender now serving time is let out tomorrow, our prisons would still be overcrowded because we lock up way too many people for a whole variety of often complicated reasons.
Pat Nolan, a former California Republican legislator who has spent decades lobbying for criminal justice reform, suggests that we incarcerate people we’re simply mad at rather than to get those who are a real danger to society off the streets. Recreational nonviolent drug users fall into the category of those we are mad at; violent drug traffickers do not. A gun-wielding gang member who robs a convenience store or bank belongs behind bars, as does the rapist and pedophile. But can the same be said for a teenager who steals a car for a joy ride, a single mom caught shoplifting or a corporate embezzler? The evidence suggests that there are better and less costly ways of dealing with most lawbreakers than tossing them into prison and at least figuratively throwing away the key.
Mandatory-minimum, one-size-fits-all sentencing, three strikes laws and the elimination of parole, combined with the requirement that those running afoul of the mind-numbing proliferation of state and federal laws be given time behind bars, are the real problem, not a mindless campaign to lock up teenagers caught smoking pot. Prison populations have grown even as crime rates have dropped because of more efficient policing and prosecutors who have brought felony charges far more frequently than in the past. It is a system that too often forces those charged to accept prison time as part of a plea bargain to avoid even harsher sentences if they go to trial. Add to this the fact that our jails and prisons are today holding hundreds of thousands of the mentally ill who would be better off if we had a functioning mental health care system in this country and you end up with a problem far more complex and difficult to solve than those demanding a mass release of the incarcerated would have us believe.
The danger today is that we are falling into the same rhetorical trap that created the problem in the first place. As crime and violence increases for some of the same reasons it did in the late ‘60s, and as the political battle forces conservatives and liberals into ideological camps, those in our prisons today — along with those who will be arrested tomorrow or next month — will pay the price. It is true that there are too many men and women incarcerated today and that our criminal justice system needs reform, but it is simply not true that all or most of those behind bars shouldn’t be there or that the problem can be solved simply by blaming it on racism or a crass insensitivity to the poor.
Those interested in true reform should tone it down a bit, get together and look seriously at the problem and at reforms that will actually work, rather than simply make them feel good.
• David A. Keene is Opinion Editor at The Washington Times.