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January 31, 2012 2:40 PM If Only President Obama Would Do Something About The Prison Population

By Keith Humphreys

Adam Gopnik’s moral outrage about the shameful level of incarceration in the U.S. is right on target. However, the analysis in his New Yorker article is weak in multiple places, most notably in missing the biggest story going in incarceration these days.

At the time President Obama was elected, the incarcerated population in the U.S. had risen every single year since the Bureau of Justice Statistics began keeping records in 1980. Given the self-sustaining force of that historical trend, turning it around would be a herculean feat for a president, particularly because most incarceration happens at the state level.

The president’s administration would have to roll back the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity and end “drug war” rhetoric, creating change at the federal level and also inspiring individual states to re-evaluate their drug sentencing guidelines. The Administration would also have to invest in re-entry programs and highlight more effective methods of parole and probation. Marijuana possession cases make far less contribution to incarceration than Gopnik asserts in his article, but some marginal reductions in the number of people under criminal supervision could come from a White House reversing past practice and not opposing state-level marijuana decriminalization laws in places such as California and Massachusetts.

If only a president would do all that, maybe year 1 of his administration would witness the first decline in the number of people under criminal supervision, followed in year 2 by the first decline in the size of the prison population since records began being kept nearly 40 years ago.

If only President Obama would make all that happen. Oh wait, he did.

Does giving President Obama credit violate New Yorker house style or something?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
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