In the meantime, the American prison population has ballooned, a phenomenon that until recently was blamed on socioeconomic factors, harsh federal and state guidelines, or other macro-level explanations. But, as Occam’s razor might suggest, the real explanation for a growing prison population is much simpler: growing prosecutorial power.
To get some context, I called John Pfaff, a professor of criminal law at Fordham University who studies mass incarceration. “We’re not admitting a few people to an ever-growing pool of long-term inmates; we’re basically cycling people in,” Pfaff said. “Every year, about half the prison population leaves, between 600,000 and 700,000 people. But we also admit about the same amount every year. It’s a giant churning process.” Between 2000 and 2012, the American prison population rose by about 100,000, from 1.5 million to 1.6 million, but that happened with a staggering 8.4 million admissions to prison, which included scores of both repeat and new offenders. “What my results show is that most people are in prison for a very short period of time, and if we simply cut back on admissions, it would lead to a very quick decline in our prison population,” Pfaff said. “As much as people sometimes seem surprised by that, it’s a factor hiding in plain sight.”
So what caused this giant increase in prison admissions? Pfaff started looking into it and realized that no one had answered the question well. He dug through reams of information and concluded that most academic and research work on the topic approached the question the wrong way: They tried to see what societal and sociological factors caused the prison population to grow. But they should have asked a more elementary question: Who was responsible for it in the first place? Many well-executed studies premised their findings on race, politics, and economics, among other sociocultural factors. Many an analysis looked at trends in crime, in arrests, and in prison admissions per crime. In many ways, those approaches were “concessions to the data,” according to Pfaff. Then he realized: “We have no data on prosecutors. The studies kind of skipped over that. That struck me as a problematic omission. I decided to figure out what role prosecutors play. I saw that we needed to add them back in.”
In a movie-worthy moment, Pfaff came across a data set that was, essentially, sitting in view for all to see—but no one had used it. By analyzing filings in state courts, “We discovered that once you add DAs back in, the picture changes completely,” Pfaff said. The data he studied came from about 35 state courts based on case filings by prosecutors. “When you look at it on a map, it looks fairly representative,” Pfaff said. “It’s got big southern states, small southern states, big northern states, western states, eastern states—it’s got a fairly good sample of the U.S.”