By Alan Bean
It is good to see book reviews like this popping up in conservative papers like the Amarillo Globe-News. Ernest Drucker’s A Plague of Prisons covers ground that will be familiar to readers of this blog. If his numbers are accurate, the State of Texas was locking up almost as many people in 2009 as the entire state prison system in the United States was incarcerating in 1970. Grasp that fact and you get a feel for the extent of mass incarceration.
According to Ronald Fraser’s review, Ernest Drucker compares the growth of prisons to a contagion sparked by a futile war on drugs. The solution? According to Fraser and Drucker its simple: “Simply by not incarcerating new cases involving nonviolent, small-time drug offenders would, Drucker said, immediately cut prison admissions by 30 percent.”
The problem here is obvious. Like most liberal and libertarian analysts, Fraser (and possibly Drucker–I haven’t read the book) refuse to grapple with the obscene spike in violent crime that gripped America from the late 1960s to the early 1990s.
Bill Stuntz saw the war on drugs as a proxy war on violent crime. Thanks to a plethora of state and federal laws, it became much easier for prosecutors to put a gangsta away on drug charges than to make a murder or assault rap stick. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but there can be no doubt that the penalties for drug offenses have become grossly disproportional.
There can also be little doubt that the war on drugs was enthusiastically embraced by almost everybody, including the poor residents of most high crime neighborhoods and the politicians who represented them. This wasn’t because people living in hot neighborhoods liked or trusted the police (they didn’t); but they liked the open air drug markets and gun violence even less.
If writers like Bill Stuntz and David Kennedy are right (and they are), we can’t end the drug war without addressing violent crime and its toxic effects in poor communities. In reality, the war on drugs is slowly subsiding as the nation begins to get a handle on the crime problem.
Easy solutions to mass incarceration that overlook the need for racial reconciliation and serious conversation between the streets, poor communities of color and law enforcement can’t be taken seriously. Laissez faire libertarianism is not a serious solution–we need (to borrow a pregnant phrase from Michelle Alexander) “a movement built on love“.
That said, a good book on the madness of prison proliferation is welcome even if, in my opinion, it doesn’t go far enough.
How did America’s addiction to prisons and mass incarceration get its start and how did it spread from state to state? Of the many attempts to answer this question, none make as much sense as the explanation found in a new book titled, “A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America.” According to public health expert and Columbia University professor, Ernest Drucker, the rapid growth and spread of American prisons follows the classic life cycle of an infectious bacterial or viral epidemic.
From 1970 to 2009, the total number of federal prisoners increased from 21,094 to 208,118. State prison inmates went from 177,737 to 1.4 million. When the 767,620 people in local jails are added in, America’s grand total for 2009 was nearly 2.4 million people behind bars — a world record. As for Texas, from 1970 to 2009, state inmates increased twelve-fold, from 14,331 to more than 171,000.
Public health officials track an epidemic by: locating its initial outbreak, identifying the exposed population, learning how its spreads, identifying how it sustains itself and addressing the epidemic’s long-term harm.
The Outbreak: To show his toughness on drug dealers, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller championed the so-called Rockefeller drug laws of 1973. These laws, said Drucker, launched America’s prison epidemic. “Adopted in response to the rise in heroin use in New York in the 1960s,” he wrote, “these laws mandated an elaborate new set of lengthy sentences for many drug offenses. In some cases sentences for possession and sales of small quantities of drugs were equal to those given for many violent crimes — rape, assault and robbery.”
The epidemic spreads: The Rockefeller laws then became the model used by lawmakers in other states to adopt their own statutes calling for severe sentences for the possession and sale of drugs. In this way, the initial outbreak became contagious and spread throughout the nation.
Exposed populations: In New York, exposure to the Rockefeller laws was concentrated in the black and Hispanic communities — Drucker calls them “feeder communities,” — and, by 1990, these drug laws accounted for a third of the state’s entire prison population. The incarceration rate for blacks and Hispanics was 30 times higher than for whites.
This pattern was repeated in other states as well, where new drug laws hit black and Hispanic communities especially hard.
Sustainability: While continued prosecution of low-level crimes is the engine that drives large prison populations, Drucker claims the epidemic is sustained by post-prison parole policies. More than 1 million paroled ex-convicts are constantly at risk of reincarceration. Violations of administrative and technical parole rules, not new criminal charges, annually account for about a third of all state prison admissions. Today, two-thirds of all released inmates are returned to prison within three years.
Long-term harm: Exposure to the criminal justice system brings on two types of lasting consequences. First, ex-convicts re-entering society are often unable to find a job, decent housing and other social services.
In addition, Drucker said, 25 to 30 percent of the children growing up in the so-called feeder communities have a parent behind bars. “These children of the incarcerated are,” he said, “the second major reason mass incarceration has become self-sustaining … Estimates are that between one-third and one-half of all juvenile hall inmates have a parent who has been incarcerated.”
Drucker concluded, “We can now identify the features of an infectious disease gone out of control — not drug use itself, but how we handle America’s drug problems. Our decision to criminalize drug use in the United States has caused our epidemic of incarceration; hence reform of our drug policies must be the first focus of our preventive strategy.” Simply by not incarcerating new cases involving nonviolent, small-time drug offenders would, Drucker said, immediately cut prison admissions by 30 percent.
New York’s Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Act of 2009 closed down the mandatory sentences found in the original draconian statue, and it grants judges greater freedom in sentencing, including the option of sending addicted offenders to treatment, not prison. Earlier drug law reforms in 2004 and 2005 contributed to a decline in New York’s prison population from 70,199 in 2000 to 58,687 in 2009 — while Texas’ prison population continued to grow from 166,719 to 171,249.
Maybe it’s time for Texas to once again follow New York’s lead and consider reforming its drug policies. The prison epidemic spread one state at a time, and that is how America’s plague of incarceration can end.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, based in Washington.