Reporter's Notebook

So What's the Solution to Mass Incarceration? Goldberg v. Coates
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Below is the back-and-forth blog exchange between Jeffrey Goldberg and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the question. It was spurred by Coates’s new essay, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” For our broader debate over the essay, go here. If you’d like to contribute your thoughts, email and we’ll do our best to include them.

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The Work of Generations

Hey, Jeff. Yeah that was a fun convo. I respect Mayor Landrieu too, though my differences with him were, I think, pretty clear. One thing I want to clear up: I think I said “open the jails” or something like that when asked for my solution. I didn't mean let everyone, everywhere out. What I was trying to get at was this palatable—but fictitious—idea that we can decarcerate without having a very hard conversation over what we mean by “violent crime” and what kind of penalties we want to attach to it.

So, in answer to your question, here are a few places I'd start:

  1. Old people. To my mind, the point of prison is two-fold—to protect the public from dangerous criminals and to attach meaningful sanction to acts which harm society. I know that there are others who believe that vengeance on behalf of victims should play some role. I am less than convinced. The argument has a strong hold on me emotionally. But I am mixed on how much of a role what victims and victims families think should happen to offenders. I just don't know. At any rate, 10 percent of our prisoners are over 55. By 2030, that number will grow to a third. This is, all at once, the population least likely to re-offend and (one of) the population most vulnerable to the violence of prisons. Shortly after I closed my piece, 58-year-old Odell Newton—who is featured—was attacked by some younger prisoners. So I agree with your cousin, Burl Cain. Start with those who've gone through “criminal menopause.”

  2. I'd lessen the sentences for violent crimes. This isn't a matter of “who” I'd release, so much as who I'd keep from staying so long. Life with parole used to be a thing in this country—and then it became politically advantageous to run against it. I would look at the rest of our peers around the world and work really hard to bring our penalties in line with them. Decarceration, I suspect, is going to be the work of generations. A good way to begin the process is to stop feeding people into the system in the first place.

  3. Juvenile lifers. This isn't about numbers so much as it is about morality. Usually you are talking about people who committed violent acts as children. With our growing knowledge of neurology and how the human brain matures, I don't know how we justify life-terms for the acts of juveniles. I'd actually extend this beyond lifers and look at juveniles, period. If you are given a 10-year sentence as, say, a 16-year-old, your life is on the shelf. When you come out, no one is going to want to employ you. Whole careers will be inaccessible to you. You will be ineligible for several government programs meant to address poverty, and you will have a significant chance of going back to jail.

  4. “Non-violent drug offenders.” I think this case has been made pretty well by others, most impressively by Michelle Alexander. I agree with it. I just want to make sure the conversation doesn't end there. Still, this has value beyond the sheer size of our prison system. Drug arrests are not the reason why there are so many people in prison, but they are among the most common charges brought. This has meaning. An arrest record is a kind of brand—a credential, as Devah Pager argues—that makes garnering gainful employment difficult. When I argue against focusing merely on “nonviolent drug offenders,” it’s not because I don't think the Drug War meant anything. I just think it's meaning lies elsewhere.


I realized something about you earlier this summer, while we were both enjoying the scenery in that famed playground of the workingman, Aspen, Colorado. I was moderating an Ideas Festival debate discussion debate between you and Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans. The conversation was supposed to focus on the reasons behind the high crime rates that afflict so many American cities. As you recall—unless you’ve completely blocked this from your mind—the conversation devolved into a sometimes-tense discussion about the role of “culture” in what used to be called—before conservatives weaponized (you should pardon the expression) the term—“black-on-black crime.” (We’re both old enough to remember the Stop the Violence movement’s non-racist use of the term.)

It turned out to be an educational discussion (except for the moment when an audience member asked you to describe what exactly Jay Z and Oprah were doing to stop crime in black neighborhoods) except that I realized, about one minute into the conversation, that the two of you were tragically mismatched. I’m a great admirer of Landrieu, as you know—he’s one of the only white politicians in America, and certainly one of the only white politicians in the South, who understands the related problems of violent crime and mass incarceration for what they are: an actual national emergency. Most politicians treat the violent deaths of African American males (262,000 killed from 1980 through 2013) as a kind of unfortunate state of nature, rather than the manifestation of fixable problems whose origins lie not in cultural deficiency but in racist policy.

But I understand why the two of you didn’t see eye-to-eye.