Boots on the Ground

By harmonic convergence, this Glenn Loury essay on the U.S. prison population is getting lots of attention in the same week that I finished up The Wire, Season 3 (twelve episodes calculated to eliminate all faith in our nation's approach to the drug war), and that the Smike Brownbuckabee combination - two conservatives with an admirable open-mindedness on reforming our criminal justice system - came in second at Ames.

Prison reform is one of those impossible issues where all the incentives cut against changing the present system, because its injustices and cruelties are borne by a small percentage of the population, and its benefits are spread across the public as a whole. Loury's essay emphasizes the racial elements at work in the system, and they're real enough, but our incarceration policy is sustained by cool reason as much as racism. Mass incarceration emerged out of prejudice, yes, but also as a rational, albeit draconian, response to a social crisis: We lock up young black men by the hundreds of thousands because it's the only sustained response that we were willing to muster to the large-scale familial and social breakdown that helped sustain America's thirty-year crime wave. Loury's essay briefly acknowledges this point, but largely elides it; he wants to focus on race, but it's memories of the crime wave, I would argue, that offer the larger stumbling block to reform. (Particularly since crime still hasn't dropped back to pre-1960s levels in many parts of the country.) There's a Catch-22 at work, too: So long as crime keeps falling, it's taken by most people (the Fox Butterfields of the world aside) as a sign the system is working; but then if crime starts inching back up, as it has the past two years (though there's good news for this year), well, nobody's going to be interested in reforming prisons during an era of rising crime!

For serious reform to make any headway, then, two things need to happen. First, conservatives need to continue their movement on the issue (only Nixon can go to China and all that), and second, reformers need to marry their efforts to a new crimefighting strategy. You can't replace something with nothing: If mass incarceration is responsible for (as seems likely) twenty percent of the reduction in crime since 1980, then the prison reformers need to offer policies that promise to make up that same ground in some other way.

One possible answer, I think - again, drawing a bit from The Wire as well as from public policy research - is more cops on the beat. This could be the twofer that (right-wing) prison reformers offer skeptical voters: Lighter sentences and more emphasis on rehabilitation on the one hand, and larger, more active police forces to pick up the slack (and ideally gain even more ground) on the other.

Update: I should note that this "prison reform plus more cops" idea shows up in the forthcoming book I'm writing with Reihan; it's a Douthat-Salam hive-mind product, not an idea original to me alone. And it owes a debt to John Donohue, among others.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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