The Conservative Case Against More Prisons

vgm8383 / FlickrBy Alan Bean

Vikrant Reddy and Marc Levin are unimpressed by arguments that associate high rates of American incarceration with white racism.  In fact, race hardly figures in their argument.  Liberals may not have created the high rates of violence that sparked a turn to punitive policies, they say, but liberals didn’t lift a finger to stop the killing.

Reddy and Levin aren’t even convinced that the shift to mass incarceration was a bad idea back in the day.  But with crime rates plunging nationwide, they ask, does it make sense to keep pumping billions of dollars into prisons that aren’t making us safer?

The authors attribute about a quarter of the drop in crime to high rates of incarceration, and I suspect they have it about right.  But that means 75% of the drop in crime has nothing to do with high rates of incarceration.  Let’s lock up the violent criminals, they say, but find less expensive ways of dealing with non-violent offenders that involve less tax money and less government.  To their credit, they realize that everybody suffers when felons who have served their time can’t find decent jobs.

Mass incarceration has been a bipartisan disaster.  Friends of Justice talks about a “punitive consensus” that swept across America between 1980 and 2000, sweeping up conservatives, liberals and even civil rights advocates.  For a long time the only principled critique of mass incarceration came from the libertarian camp–the race to incarcerate, among other things, led to a massive expansion of government power.  Then a few folks on the left wakened from their dogmatic slumbers in the late 1990s and the case of mass incarceration wasn’t quite so obvious. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has had a phenomenal impact, especially in the civil rights community.  And now the argument against mass incarceration has taken root on the right, especially (no surprise here) among libertarians.

Frankly, I think the conservative tendency to avoid the racial dynamics of the war on drugs is as indefensible as the liberal tendency to ignore the relationship between rising crime rates and high levels of incarceration.  But so long as we get some long-deferred public policy change I’m not going to sweat the details.  Please give “The conservative case against more prisons” the attention it deserves.

The Conservative Case Against More Prisons


March 6, 2013

Since the 1980s, the United States has built prisons at a furious pace, and America now has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world. 716 out of every 100,000 Americans are behind bars. By comparison, in England and Wales, only 149 out of every 100,000 people are incarcerated. In Australia—famously founded as a prison colony—the number is 130. In Canada, the number is 114.

Prisons, of course, are necessary. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne observed that “The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil… as the site of a prison.” As long as there are people, there will be conflict and crime, and there will be prisons. Prisons, however, are not a source of pride. An unusually high number of prison cells signals a society with too much crime, too much punishment, or both.

There are other ways to hold offenders—particularly nonviolent ones—accountable. These alternatives when properly implemented can lead to greater public safety and increase the likelihood that victims of crime will receive restitution. The alternatives are also less costly. Prisons are expensive (in some states, the cost of incarcerating an inmate for one year approaches $60,000), and just as policymakers should scrutinize government expenditures on social programs and demand accountability, they should do the same when it comes to prison spending. None of this means making excuses for criminal behavior; it simply means “thinking outside the cell” when it comes to punishment and accountability.  Read more here.