Is it Wrong to Spread the Word about U.S. De-Incarceration?

I was happy to see that Bloomberg Television picked up some of the material I have posted about the decline in the prison admission rate. The anchors express surprise at the change, so I feel safe in assuming that the data were news to them and also to at least some of their viewers.

Is the acquisition of a little knowledge a good thing in this case?

Most people who have responded to my posts about the dawn of U.S. de-incarceration seem to think so. Among those who have spread the positive news that the size of the prison population is finally dropping are Ryan Cooper, Kevin Drum, Charles Lane, Nancy LeTourneau, Patrick Appel and Alex Tabbarok. But a small group of people are upset that I have engaged in what might be called “airing clean laundry”. Their argument is that by letting the public know that incarceration rates are going down, I am effectively declaring that mass incarceration is over (even though I have repeatedly said just the opposite) and implicitly encouraging everyone to move on to some other social problem.

The consequentialist argument against sharing good news regarding a longstanding social problem is that it invariably undermines further reform by reducing the public’s sense of urgency. I am not convinced that this hypothesis is correct. Ignoring evidence of positive change can increase despair and thereby reduce the willingness of advocates to keep trying. In contrast, showing evidence of success builds hope and confidence. Further, highlighting the achievements of reformers brings them attention and respect, which can help sustain them in their difficult work.

Facing the facts squarely also increases our ability to learn and thereby make more progress. Many people (including me) have implemented efforts to reduce the size of the prison population. Are sentence reductions, compassionate release programs, anti-violence policing initiatives, swift and certain probation systems etc. making any difference? Are all of them equally effective, or should we be directing resources only to a subset which are particularly good at keeping people out of prison? If admitting that the prison population is shrinking is forbidden, those critical, practical questions about how to make more progress are ruled out of discussion.

Last but not least, irrespective of consequentialist arguments, letting the citizenry know what their government is doing in the area of prison policy has inherent value (and N.B. all the data I present here at RBC on prisons are governmental and therefore paid for by that very citizenry). As naively Schoolhouse-Rockish as it may sound, democracy in a free society doesn’t mean much if the public is denied access to accurate information. Even if some viewers of Bloomberg TV react to the data about the recent drop in prison admissions in ways I detest (e.g., Phoning up their Senator and saying “What the hell are you doing, you soft-on-crime wimp!), I don’t feel comfortable invoking that possibility as a justification for withholding the truth from them.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.