Sanders Can’t Keep His Deincarceration Promise

Political candidates make statements that do not closely track the facts. That’s a given. Sometimes it’s just fluff and spin: not creditable, but not a mortal sin, either.

Sometimes, however, a candidate makes a statement suggesting that the candidate is either being deliberately deceptive on a matter of importance or simply has no idea what he or she is talking about.

Consider, for example, this from Bernie Sanders:

… at the end of my first term, we will not have more people in jail than any other country.

That’s a very specific promise, with a timeline attached. And it is a promise that no President has the power to fulfill.

If we elide the distinction between prisons (holding people convicted of serious crimes) and jails (holding people convicted of minor crimes and people awaiting trial), it is true and important that the U.S. leads the world in incarceration. That’s a disgrace. (I seem to recall having written a book on the topic.)

We should do something about that, and there are things to do about it. A President can do some of them.

But of the 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, fewer than 10% are Federal prisoners. The rest are in state prisons and local jails. If the President were to release all of the Federal prisoners, we would still, as a country, have more prisoners than any other country. So Sen. Sanders was very specifically making a promise he has no way of keeping. Either he knows that or he does not.

And his promise to accomplish it with “education and jobs” utterly misunderstands the short-term relationships between schooling and employment on the one hand and crime and incarceration on the other.

So it sounds as if Sen. Sanders, after several decades in public office, is either utterly unserious or utterly clueless about the crime issue. Again, that’s excusable. But since he also seems to know very little about foreign policy, and much of what he thinks he knows about health care is just plain wrong, someone might want to start asking what it is he does know about, other than how to get a crowd riled up by denouncing the banksters.

Those of us supporting Hillary Clinton this year are sometimes accused of wanting to settle for political small-ball rather than sweeping change. But no matter how good Sen. Sanders’s intentions may be, he’s not going to be able to change very much for the better unless he’s willing to learn something about the way the world, and the political system, actually operate.

Learning requires both humility – the knowledge of what one does not now know – and curiosity. Sen. Sanders’s passionate conviction that he already knows the truth, and that anyone who disagrees with him must be in the pay of special interests, does not suggest that he numbers either humility or curiosity among his many virtues.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.