What Comes After Incarceration?

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


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.

Landrieu is a politician, an executive temporarily assigned by the people of New Orleans to pacify their streets. He’s searching for immediate fixes. You are very much not a politician—when I asked you what you would do in New Orleans if you were the mayor, you answered by saying that you could only tell me what you would if you were king, the implication being that your prescriptions have a sweep to them that is beyond the realm of ordinary politics.

Which brings me—circuitously—to a point many people will raise with you, about mass incarceration: Who, exactly, would you let out of prison? We know, from the work of Marie Gottschalk, and others, that the release of non-violent drug offenders would not actually do the trick of bringing our incarceration rates into line with other developed nations. We’ve talked a lot about Angola, so you know that the warden, Burl Cain, believes that a certain portion of his incarcerated murderer population is ready for release, if the state would just change its laws. But he wouldn’t let everyone out, not by a long shot. “Reparations,” which is the answer you provide at the end of your latest piece, is, to me, a fine answer to many questions, but it does not answer the question, “Which prisoners do we release back into society without negative consequence? What is the formula you would use to decide who goes free and who stays imprisoned?”