The focus on structural problems, however, overshadows the numerous people that are serving time for nonviolent offenses, like property or petty drug offenses, which would not warrant a sentence in other countries. And many people, like Odell Newton featured in Coates’s article, are serving decades-long and lifelong prison sentences for violent offenses even though they no longer pose serious threats to public safety.
Major decarcerations elsewhere, including Finland in the 1960s and ‘70s, West Germany in the 1980s, and California under Governor Ronald Reagan, were the result of comprehensive changes in penal policy over the short term, not sustained attacks on structural problems and the root causes of crime. The package of penal policies that is currently popular among elite policymakers in the U.S.—a focus on reentry, justice reinvestment, and reducing recidivism—is not up to the task.
The changes needed to slash the country’s incarceration rate are no mystery. While reentry is important, the U.S. cannot focus only on those who are being released. It instead needs to radically cut the number of people who are sent to jail or prison in the first place, and decrease sentence lengths and time served. There should also be comprehensive sentencing and other penal reforms guided by two main principles. First, prison should be reserved primarily for people who pose grave threats to public safety. (The state of Maryland should have released Odell Newton decades ago.) Second, people caught up in the justice system should not be treated as second-class citizens. Their human dignity should not be trampled on—not during apprehension, processing, punishment, or after they have served their sentences.
Major reforms in penal policy and law enforcement are also necessary to begin dismantling the carceral state, even if they don’t resolve the crime crisis that persists in the U.S. While the record drop in crime rates since the 1990s is a major achievement, crime is increasingly distributed in unequal ways, and unacceptably high rates of violent crime persist in certain urban neighborhoods. Ignoring these disquieting facts is like heralding the record highs of the U.S. stock market or gains in U.S. per capita income without considering trends in income distribution or poverty rates.
Since the early 1990s, the homicide victimization rate for African Americans has fallen by more than half, but it remains extraordinarily high. The homicide rate in Chicago’s affluent Hyde Park, home to President Obama, is 3 per 100,000. But the rate in neighboring Washington Park, which is overwhelmingly poor and 98 percent African American, is 78 per 100,000. The homicide victimization rate for blacks is about six times the rate for whites. And despite the crime drop, over 78,000 black males were homicide victims between 2000 and 2010, exceeding the total number of U.S. military casualties during the Vietnam War by about 25 percent.