Can the Era of Mass Incarceration Finally End?

As noted in an important piece by David Dagan and Steven Teles in the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly, one of the rare positive developments on the political Right in recent years has been a growing reconsideration of conservative “lock ’em up and throw away the key” policy prescriptions on criminal justice. And just as importantly, the new interest of conservatives in once-liberal issues like prison reform, rehabilitation, and alternative sentencing has liberated Democrats from the defensive crouch in which they often competed with Republicans to show themselves “tough on crime.” (Quick anecdote: when I worked for Zell Miller in Georgia in the early 1990s, he sought to outflank conservatives on the crime issue in the runup to his 1994 re-election by coming out for “Two Strikes and You’re Out” legislation. I had nothing to do with this truly mindless “idea,” and was soon writing policy papers attacking mandatory sentencing in general, but it made me ashamed nonetheless).

So there’s new hope for curbing the madness on sentencing policies, but as John Tierney reminds us at the New York Times today, the injustice and gigantic waste of human resources imposed by the wave of maximum incarceration must be confronted very openly:

Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail….

Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people over 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. In all, about 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.

Researchers note that the policies have done little to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And they say goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.

And even the “experts” who backed mandatory sentencing policies back in the 1980s and 1990s are calling for their reversal.

Politics and governing being what they are, it will be a good while before all these reconsiderations bear fruit in actual policies, so we’ll see more tragedy and waste before the idiocy ends.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.