Political Animal


December 12, 2012 11:35 AM Can the Era of Mass Incarceration Finally End?

By Ed Kilgore

As noted in an important piece by David Dagan and Steven Teles in the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly, one of the rare positive developments on the political Right in recent years has been a growing reconsideration of conservative “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” policy prescriptions on criminal justice. And just as importantly, the new interest of conservatives in once-liberal issues like prison reform, rehabilitation, and alternative sentencing has liberated Democrats from the defensive crouch in which they often competed with Republicans to show themselves “tough on crime.” (Quick anecdote: when I worked for Zell Miller in Georgia in the early 1990s, he sought to outflank conservatives on the crime issue in the runup to his 1994 re-election by coming out for “Two Strikes and You’re Out” legislation. I had nothing to do with this truly mindless “idea,” and was soon writing policy papers attacking mandatory sentencing in general, but it made me ashamed nonetheless).

So there’s new hope for curbing the madness on sentencing policies, but as John Tierney reminds us at the New York Times today, the injustice and gigantic waste of human resources imposed by the wave of maximum incarceration must be confronted very openly:

Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail….
Half a million people are now in prison or jail for drug offenses, about 10 times the number in 1980, and there have been especially sharp increases in incarceration rates for women and for people over 55, long past the peak age for violent crime. In all, about 1.3 million people, more than half of those behind bars, are in prison or jail for nonviolent offenses.
Researchers note that the policies have done little to stem the flow of illegal drugs. And they say goals like keeping street violence in check could be achieved without the expense of locking up so many criminals for so long.

And even the “experts” who backed mandatory sentencing policies back in the 1980s and 1990s are calling for their reversal.

Politics and governing being what they are, it will be a good while before all these reconsiderations bear fruit in actual policies, so we’ll see more tragedy and waste before the idiocy ends.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • N.Wells on December 12, 2012 11:44 AM:

    Obama should kill several birds with one stone: claim financial exigency, legalize marijuana and tax the heck out of it, and pardon people in jail for possession of marijuana. Besides reducing prison costs, this would also increase the number of small businesses, remove a source of corruption of the police (bribes and drug asset seizures, for example) and erase a major pathway fur turning citizens into law-breakers, all the while irritating the heck out of republicans. Win, win, win.

  • c u n d gulag on December 12, 2012 11:55 AM:

    The last "War on" anything we won, was WWII, when we won the wars on, and of, everything.

    Ever since then, a draw's the best we've had:
    Note: I can't include Grenada, since that was like the NY Giants playing a Pop Warner team.

    Let's end the incarceration madness.

    And then where will our "Job Creators" find free, slave labor?

  • esaud on December 12, 2012 12:11 PM:

    This is just one more negative side effect of the rise of movement conservatism.

    Of course, it has been happening in slow mothion, but when you look at the demise of unions, the rise of income inequality, the number of people jailed for trivial offenses, the number of people not jailed for horrendous crimes like torture or money laundering for drug cartels or the sexual abuse of children, the collapse of our media institutions, wars of choice, low marginal tax rates, corporations making billions but paying no tax, it is truly an impressive accomplishment.

    Unless things turn around soon, I cannot imagine what this country will look like in 20 years or so. I'm thinking Blade Runner or Mad Max.

  • jprichva on December 12, 2012 12:13 PM:

    This is the legacy of Attica. Forty-one years of it. Thanks, Rocky.

  • Ken D. on December 12, 2012 12:37 PM:

    But as Krugman reminds us today in another context, "pay any attention to right-wing rhetoric and you learn that spite against liberals, even if there's no gain for their side, is a major motivator." Can a left/right coalition on incarceration policy avoid that huge pothole? Hope so, think not.

  • Robb on December 12, 2012 2:27 PM:

    Sorry, but as time goes on, I can't take anything Republicans say at face value.

    I bet this movement eventually evolves into a call for more privatization of prisons.
    Just like busting unions is "right to work" and voter suppression is "anti-fraud" and so on and so on, privatization will be "against the growth of the prison state."

    The whole party is built on nothing but lies.

    The Democrats may lie too, but the GOP is nothing but lies.

  • tko on December 12, 2012 8:16 PM:

    I'm sure with our justice system the HSBC criminals were never worried about seeing the inside of a prison cell. Kudos to our Justice Dept. to demonstrating what a bunch of jack offs they are when it comes to cleaning up Wall Street.

  • jhm on December 13, 2012 8:04 AM:

    As important as this is, and as far as public opinion has come, there is still the pervasive and growing pecuniary interests which run counter to this trend.

    Firstly, the prison system is increasingly becoming a for-profit industry and will resist moves to prevent its growth,and has like the defense industry, made itself indispensable to many localities' economies .

    Secondly, and somewhat a part of the first point, is the growing business of drugs testing which has grown in parallel with the incarceration business which threatens to pursue growth independently of any actual incarceration, making much employment contingent on such testing, for no apparent reason, and despite a lack of efficacy that begs the putative reasoning in any event.