The Work of Generations

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

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.

But none of this will have any long-term meaning without meaningful change in the communities to which these folks will return. Black people are the most segregated minority in this country. Returning folks to these communities with no effort to improve them, strikes me as short-sighted and, frankly, insane. There is going to have to be a strong push to address criminogenic conditions in black communities, conditions that exist because of American policy, no magic. And that is why I don't think you can get away from reparations. There is going to have to be some recognition that the violence which exists in black communities can't be separated from the forces which formed those communities in the first place.

One thing I think that separates us is our vision of what a journalist with opinions is supposed to be doing. I see my role as attempting to stretch the realm of what is possible. Like, I am actually attracted to things that I think might be good ideas, but aren't doable right now. I don’t expect to have any influence whatsoever on events. Put differently, I like seemingly intractable problems. I suspect all journalists do. But I view you as someone more interested in actionable solutions. I thought this was a motivating idea in your guns piece. I thought it was part of your admiration for Mayor Landrieu—i.e. this reparations idea is awesome in theory, but what are you going to do right now? How do you think about this stuff? How do you think about your role as journalist?