WHEN Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ted Cruz, Eric H. Holder Jr., Jeb Bush, George Soros, Marco Rubio and Charles G. Koch all agree that we must end mass incarceration, it is clear that times have changed. Not long ago, most politicians believed the only tenable stance on crime was to be tougher than the next guy.
Today, nearly everyone acknowledges that our criminal justice system needs fixing, and politicians across the spectrum call for reducing prison sentences for low-level drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses. But this consensus glosses over the real challenges to ending mass incarceration. Even if we released everyone imprisoned for drugs tomorrow, the United States would still have 1.7 million people behind bars, and an incarceration rate four times that of many Western European nations.
Mass incarceration can be ended. But that won’t happen unless we confront the true scale of the problem.
A hard-nosed skeptic would tell you that fully half the people in state prisons are serving time for violent offenses. And most drug offenders behind bars are not kids caught smoking a joint, but dealers, many with multiple prior convictions. We already have about 3,000 drug courts diverting those who need it to treatment rather than prison. Recidivism remains astonishingly high for those we release from prison, so releasing more poses real risks. And criminal law is primarily enforced by the states, not the federal government, so this is not a problem the next president can solve.
To move beyond symbolic sound bites to real progress, we need to address each of these objections in turn.
It’s true that half the people in state prisons are there for a violent crime, but not all individuals convicted of violent crimes are alike. They range from serial killers to minor players in a robbery and battered spouses who struck back at their abusers. If we are going to end mass incarceration, we need to recognize that the excessively long sentences we impose for most violent crimes are not necessary, cost-effective or just.
Read More How to Lock Up Fewer People – NYTimes.com.