By John Pfaff
Ours is a massive experiment in punitive social control that imposes disproportionate costs on people of color and those who are poor—and one that is nearly impossible to justify even remotely, at least on public safety grounds.
It is increasingly clear that other approaches could have achieved the same reduction in crime at far less cost—not just financial cost but social cost as well.
The real costs of prison are the harms that incarceration imposes on the people it locks up, their families and their communities.
We should rely on prison less, whether crime rates are going down or up. It is not surprising that the push to cut prisons has come after more than 20 years of falling crime—but prisons were an ineffective way to respond to crime from the start.
We have framed decarceration as a low-crime luxury, not as sound policy regardless of what crime rates are doing.
In no other country are criminal justice actors so immediately accountable to the public. We are the only nation in the world that elects its prosecutors, and, for all intents and purposes, the only one that elects its judges as well. Moreover, our single-member district, first-past-the-post process for electing legislators means that even senior legislative leaders are at risk of losing their seats in any election—and bad crime stories are a powerful political tool for opponents to use.
Mass incarceration did not arise by accident or due to one or two small mistakes. It is the product of a deep, racially driven punitiveness, combined with a vast array of incentives that consistently make harshness politically safe and leniency dangerous. Our seven-year reduction in prison populations is certainly something to celebrate, but those reductions are modest and always vulnerable. And they will remain modest and vulnerable unless we tackle some very difficult issues, such as how we treat violence and the even the basic design of our criminal justice systems.
Excerpt from American Magazine.