An Honest Discussion of Crime and Punishment is Much Harder Than Our Politics Make it Sound


When I wrote about the 1994 crime bill a few weeks back, I got a lot of email and Facebook pushback from people who were missing my main point- 1994 and 2015 are different times, and what we know now and what we knew then were different things. In the U.S. political system, you generally pass laws like this to fix problems you have in the moment, which at that time was high crime rates. In the U.S. political system, you are also supposed to amend laws to fix mistakes and make changes as conditions change. A law isn’t supposed to stand, untouched, forever. You respond to the things that need responding to. Obviously over time, we’ve seen “mandatory minimum” sentencing, ending inmate education programs, and harsher penalties for drug violations have been failures. A functioning Congress would have responded to those failures, and fixed them. The dysfunctional mess that we have for a Congress let the “Assault Weapons Ban” portion of the bill expire, and damn near gutted the Violence Against Women Act portion on occasion. In other words, our politics failed us more than the 1994 legislation did.

Part of the reason our politics fails us though is that we have silly, trivial conversations. Should we end the War on Drugs, and the tough mandatory minimum sentencing that we put on drug violators? Sure we should. Does that really do anything about the issue of mass-incarceration though? Hell no.

What surprised me most in using the tool, as one who has followed the debate on criminal reform, is just how hard it will be to turn back the clock and achieve deep reductions in incarceration. Traffic tickets for pot smokers won’t take us there, and neither will making petty thieves sweep sidewalks or retroactively ending the wildly disparate sentences for crack possession.

Some findings are encouraging: In states including Kentucky, Missouri and Texas, there remains “low-hanging fruit,” in the words of Ryan King, an author of the new forecasting tool. These include relatively easy changes in low-level drug sentencing and parole revocations for minor violations that can make a serious dent in those states that have not already made them. In such states, reducing prison admissions for nonviolent crimes by half would cut the number of inmates in 2021 by more than 25 percent.

But in many other states, including Michigan, New Jersey and New York, drug sentences are already reduced. There is no avoiding the politically poisonous question of releasing violent offenders or reducing their long sentences. “We need to start what’s going to be a long and difficult conversation about violent crime,” Mr. King said.

I was startled by these calculations for New Jersey, for example: Cutting in half the number of people sent to prison for drug crimes would reduce the prison population at the end of 2021 by only 3 percent. By contrast, cutting the effective sentences, or time actually served, for violent offenders by just 15 percent would reduce the number of inmates in 2021 by 7 percent — more than twice as much, but still hardly the revolution many reformers seek.

New Jersey could reduce its prison population by 25 percent by 2021. But to do it, it would have to take the politically fraught step of cutting in half the effective sentences for violent offenders.

There’s a simple reality here that is being missed. Yes, federal prisons are full of drug abusers and dealers, and frankly that’s terrible. Federal prisons house 14% of inmates in the United States. The rest, 86%, are in state prisons. State prisons aren’t full of pot dealers. They’re full of violent criminals. The stats don’t lie:

Just over half of all state prisoners were convicted of violent crimes like assaults, gun crimes, robbery, rape and murder, with some people serving lengthy “habitual offender” sentences.

The inescapable facts revealed to anyone using with the Urban Institute tool: Big cuts in incarceration must come at the state level, and they will have to involve rethinking of sentences for violent criminals as well as unarmed drug users and burglars.

And here in lies my point- our entire discussion of crime and punishment in America is a joke. We can have a discussion of drug crimes, mandatory minimum sentences, the Giulianis and Bloombergs of the world, and anything else we’d like to discuss about crime, and that’s fine. Even if we let every drug criminal in the country out, we’d still have over a million convicts sitting in prison, a mass-incarceration problem, and the same issues with what to do with these people when they get out of jail. The truth is, a little over 20 years ago the country decided to get very tough on crime. We had violent streets. We now have over-crowded jails. It’s no secret that the justice system has been disproportionately tough on minorities and poor people. It’s not a “fix” to make pot legal. We have a country where millions of our poor are segregated together in neighborhoods that lack education and labor opportunity, where guns are available easily (nationally, not just in impoverished areas), on demand, and where getting arrested and convicted is a virtual death sentence that closes most of the doors available to you in life. The combination is lethal.

We absolutely should repeal and change parts of the 1994 crime bill. We absolutely should set loose non-violent offenders and change the system to help them get back on their feet. We should end the war on drugs, and mandatory minimum sentencing. We should end “Stop and Frisk” and all other racial profiling systems. We should offer educational opportunities in jail, we should sentence less people to jail in the first place. We should embrace all of the good ideas being floated, and nearly all of the policy critiques being leveled at the crime bill. We should absolutely consider moving from a punishment-based system of policing and law enforcement, and more towards a prevention system. Felons who serve their sentences should get their rights back. I’m basically with everybody’s ideas.

Even after we do that though, we’re going to have to deal with a really, really difficult question- what do we want? Crime is way down in the United States under the system we have, violent and non-violent. There are more cops and they are better at catching criminals than ever before. We also have a mass-incarceration issue that we didn’t have decades ago, and that really no other developed country has. We’re locking a lot of people up for long sentences in this country. So, fair or not, do we want the low crime rates of today and the high incarceration rates, the opposite, or to find some other, better solution that is a lot harder than what we’re discussing now.

This could lead into some other, deeper discussions. What if, instead of stopping and frisking in high crime districts of New York, Michael Bloomberg had dedicated more resources to the education systems or economic development and job creation in those “high crime districts?” In all honesty, the causes of crime are really difficult to decipher in a blog post by a person who hasn’t spent their entire life in law enforcement, but we all know that if we dig into this deeper, we’re going to find a lot more issues that run deeper in our society, at the heart of this. Perhaps we’ll reach a point where people don’t really want to dig much deeper. I don’t know. I just know that the convenient “stop locking up neighborhood pot dealers” discussion is barely scratching the surface.


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