Change is in the air, however. For one thing, the present U.S. approach to crime-fighting is hugely expensive. A year in prison costs state taxpayers an average of $31,000. In California, the cost rises to $47,000, thanks to higher health costs and a powerful prison-guard union. Other democracies have achieved considerable crime reduction since the early 1990s without imprisoning anything like so many people. Look at the U.K. for example: Britain imprisons only 85,000 people, as compared to more than 2.2 million in the United States. Australia and Canada show similar trends, likewise with smaller prison populations.
Imprisoning very large numbers of people also carries heavy non-economic costs. Men who are sent to prison face tremendous difficulty returning to the job market. They lose contact with their children, if they have them, who in turn are much more at risk of going to prison. Every aspect of the criminal-justice system reveals racial disparity. 60 percent of those in prison are black or Latino. One in three black men will pass through prison at some point in his life. Black ex-convicts face permanently lower lifetime wages as compared to white ex-convicts.
So it’s understandable that politicians from Hillary Clinton to Rand Paul would call for a different approach. But what?
Imprisonment rates are already declining, down from a peak in 2007. The majority of people in state prison, more than 53 percent, have been convicted of a violent crime: murder, rape, or robbery. Only about 3.7 percent of the state prison population has been sent there for drug possession alone. (In the much smaller federal system, drug offenses loom larger—but federal drug prisoners are overwhelmingly professional drug dealers, not casual possessors.)
Putting such people in prison and keeping them there is a harsh, crude, and expensive way to protect society from them. But the suggestion that less prison would leave society no less safe is dangerously glib. The last time the political pendulum swung away from incarceration—in the liberal decade from 1960 to 1970, the total number of prisoners dropped outright, and much more in relation to population—the country got in return the most serious crime wave since Prohibition.
The advocates of de-incarceration in the 1960s believed they were acting generously. They recognized that individual criminals reflect larger social problems, racism most fundamentally. Young and poor black Americans, followed by the newer immigrant Latino Americans who are joining them at the bottom of the American social hierarchy, grow up in circumstances weighted against them in ways deeply rooted in American history. De-incarcerators argued then, and argue with renewed ardor now, that tossing malefactors into dungeons for decades does nothing to address the true causes of crime.
And surely they have a point. Yet while the history of discrimination contains powerful explanations of crime, it offers little guidance about what to do about crime. Even if racism shaped a murderer, anti-racism won’t undo the murder—or prevent the murderer from killing again. The first task of government is to protect the lives and property of citizens. Governments that cannot or will not perform that task forfeit their legitimacy—as will, by the way, any cause or movement that argues that citizens must accept a higher risk of violence or robbery as their contribution to somebody else’s ideal of justice.
Diverting people from prison where we can is the right thing to do. Testing shorter sentences and easier parole for less dangerous offenders is feasible in today’s successful crime-fighting context. Prisons must be made more humane, and prison rape should be addressed as the national shame and scandal it is. Easing the return of prisoners to society—and mentoring their families until the prisoner returns—should be a front-of-mind issue for charities and philanthropy. But given how poorly we understand why and how crime was reduced in the first place, the debate about de-incarceration should proceed with caution and humility. Mass incarceration is bad. Mass-criminal victimization is worse.
And for those who think politically, a reminder: It was crime more than anything else that sent the country hurtling to the right in the 1970s. It was the decline of crime that enabled the revival of the liberal left in the 2000s. The fate that Hillary Clinton is tempting with her about-face on crime and punishment—it may be her own.