John F. Pfaff’s Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform is probably the best book on so-called mass incarceration to date. A professor of law at Fordham, Pfaff doesn’t cherry-pick data to support some a priori theory; staying empirically grounded, he grapples directly with the data—an approach that makes his argument for reducing imprisonment a very tough sell. If, as Pfaff’s own figures demonstrate, violent crime and other serious offenses are the primary reasons for incarceration, then why should we reduce imprisonment?
The author’s main point is that the usual explanations for the rise in imprisonment—the “standard story,” as he calls it—are not only wrong but also counterproductive to de-incarceration efforts. The standard story has three components: the war on drugs, long prison sentences, and the growth of private prisons. Each of the three, Pfaff demonstrates, is a secondary contributor at best.
Pfaff quickly dismisses the contribution of the “prison industrial complex” to mass incarceration, noting that privately managed prisons house only about 7 percent of U.S. inmates, and that their management policies are no worse than those of the public sector. The drug war is a more serious contributing factor to rising imprisonment rates: drug convictions put thousands behind bars, especially during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. Michelle Alexander, in her much-ballyhooed 2012 book The New Jim Crow, writes that the “impact of the drug war has been astounding. In less than thirty years, the U.S penal population exploded from around 300,000 to more than 2 million, with drug convictions accounting for the majority of the increase.” But as Pfaff demonstrates, at the peak of the great crackdown in 1990, inmates serving time in state prisons for drug crimes accounted for 22 percent of the state-prison population, whereas violent inmates made up 47 percent—more than twice as many. When prison populations increased dramatically, from 1980 to 1990, drugs accounted for only a third of the increase. Even in that lock-’em-up decade, crimes of violence put a greater number, 36 percent, behind bars.
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