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Can Our Shameful Prisons Be Reformed?

The war on drugs has by most accounts been a failure, and we are all paying the bill. In 2008, 1.7 million people were arrested for drug crimes.12 Since 1989, more people have been incarcerated for drug offenses than for all violent crimes combined. Yet much like Prohibition, the war on drugs has not ended or even significantly diminished drug use. It has made drugs more expensive, and fostered a multibillion-dollar criminal industry in drug delivery and sales. Drugs have become more concentrated and deadly; twice as many people die from drugs today than before the war on drugs was declared. If anything, the war on drugs has probably increased the incidence of crime; about half of property crime, robberies, and burglaries are attributable to the inflated cost of drugs caused by criminalizing them.

More fundamentally, as citizens we all have a stake in the fairness and legitimacy of our criminal justice system for both moral and pragmatic reasons. The character of our nation is determined in significant part by how we treat the criminally accused. It is no accident that the Bill of Rights concentrates primarily on protecting the rights of those suspected of crime. These amendments were deemed necessary precisely because political majorities are likely to seek shortcuts on fairness when crime is alleged, even though fairness is fundamental to the integrity of the criminal justice system.

As a pragmatic matter, the legitimacy of the criminal justice system is essential because it encourages law-abiding behavior. If people believe in the basic legitimacy of a leader or regime or procedure, they are far more likely to abide by the rules. If, on the other hand, a system is seen as corrupt, unfair, or unjust, those subjected to it will be less inclined to respect it. A legal system that relegates the majority of our most disadvantaged populations to incarceration, and does next to nothing to help them avoid prison or to reintegrate into society upon release, invites disrespect—and crime.


How do we escape the self-defeating cycle of crime and punishment? Anthony Thompson suggests that we focus on the neediest—the 700,000 or so prisoners who are released each year. Before the incarceration boom, the avowed purpose of criminal sentencing in America was rehabilitation. Prison sentences were often open-ended, with the idea being that a successful course of rehabilitation would warrant an earlier release. In the 1970s, however, the nation began to sour on rehabilitation, and over the next two decades state and federal authorities eliminated most efforts to educate, train, and counsel prisoners with a view toward preparing them for their return to society.

Thompson argues that when 700,000 prisoners are being released each year, we ignore at our peril their reintegration into our society. A stable home, job, and health are strong predictors of law-abiding behavior. But incarceration makes stability much more difficult to obtain in all these respects. Public housing laws often bar offenders, and private landlords routinely discriminate against them. Federal and state laws broadly prohibit ex-offenders from hundreds of jobs, often without any rational justification, and even where no bar exists, private employers are less than eager to hire them. Prisoners who enter prison without physical and mental illnesses often develop them while inside. Yet as Thompson demonstrates, society does virtually nothing to help ex-offenders find homes, jobs, or health care—thereby virtually guaranteeing a cycle of recidivism.

Thompson proposes a variety of sensible reforms—eliminating laws that irrationally bar ex-offenders from jobs and housing, providing health care and counseling to help smooth the transition back to life outside of prison. But the question he leaves unanswered is the most difficult one: Where is the political impetus for such reform? If Americans are skeptical about the government providing health insurance for the law-abiding, what is going to make them support it for ex-offenders? And if we do not invest in sufficient job training or public housing for those who have never been imprisoned, why would we do so for those who have violated criminal laws?

Butler offers a broader set of proposals. Some are, like Thompson’s, eminently sensible. He calls for decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use, for example. Several other nations, including the Netherlands, Spain, France, and Mexico, have done just that, without any evident rise in drug use. And he recommends that we treat drugs as a public health issue, adopting “harm reduction” strategies such as needle exchange.

Butler also suggests that we offer economic incentives to encourage young people to stay in school. In view of the number of high school dropouts who land in prison, if we can keep young people in school, we may be able to keep them out of prison. From a purely economic perspective, it takes a lot less money to induce an at-risk young man to remain in school than it does to lock him up for a year. Similarly, Butler’s proposal that we invest in eliminating sources of lead poisoning makes economic sense, since exposure to lead in children turns out to be highly correlated with criminal behavior subsequently. Butler also calls for a general reduction in criminal sentences, and for the early release of nonviolent offenders, many of whom should never have been locked up in the first place.

Other recommendations are more questionable. Butler calls on juries, for example, to engage in “nullification” of the criminal law to protest mass imprisonment. Because juries need not give reasons for their decisions, they have the discretion to acquit even where the state has proved criminal behavior beyond a reasonable doubt. Butler proposes that jurors consciously adopt the tactic, as a kind of civil disobedience, to resist mass incarceration—but only in cases involving victimless crimes.

This proposal has many problems. First, jurors act episodically and in secret. Thus, unlike civil disobedience, acts of nullification are unlikely to have a galvanizing effect. Second, to engage in a conscious strategy of nullification will often require dissembling, itself criminal behavior. If a potential juror admits that she will not vote to convict no matter how strong the evidence is, a judge will not let her sit on the jury. Thus, to engage in this practice may require citizens to lie. It is not wise to build a movement for social change on deceit. Third, it is often difficult to know whether a crime is in fact “victimless.” Prosecutors often pursue relatively low-level offenders in the hope that they can “encourage” them to identify wrongdoers further up the chain of command. Even if the foot soldier is not engaged in activity that harms victims, an organized crime ring may have many victims. How is a juror to assess whether a given prosecution is a legitimate part of such a broader investigation?

Butler’s advocacy of jury nullification is probably best understood as a symbolic act of resistance rather than a concrete solution to the problems of race and class inequality. But even as a symbol, it seems flawed, and unlikely to attract the kind of broad support that would be necessary to build a meaningful consensus for real reform.


It is, after all, real reform that we need. On that front, the biggest challenge is that the very demographics that make the pattern of crime and punishment in America so skewed against blacks and Latinos also make it all too easy for politicians, and the majorities they represent, to adhere to an unthinking “tough on crime” attitude. Senator Jim Webb has dared to buck that trend, proposing a national commission to study inequality in the criminal justice system. Such an effort would bring welcome, and long overdue, attention to the issue, and might impel us to do something about the problems we have all too complacently ignored.

Recent years have shown some softening in the politics of crime. Between 2004 and 2006, twenty-two states adopted reforms that shortened criminal sentences. In 2004, New York amended its notoriously draconian Rockefeller-era drug laws, and revised them again this year to make low-level offenders eligible for shortened sentences, or in some cases for treatment programs instead of prisons. In 2005, Connecticut eliminated the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine under its state law, and in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that federal judges could depart from strict “sentencing guidelines” and impose more lenient sentences based on concerns about the racial disparities caused by the different treatment of crack and powder cocaine under federal law. In April 2009, the Obama administration came out in favor of eliminating the crack–powder disparity altogether in federal law.

Several states have expanded drug treatment options as alternatives to prison for drug offenses. A RAND Corporation study estimates that treatment is fifteen times more effective at reducing drug-related crime than incarceration.13 An increasingly popular way of diverting drug offenders to treatment is through the use of “drug courts,” in which judges oversee treatment programs and dismiss criminal charges upon a defendant’s successful completion of treatment. The first drug court was introduced in 1989; as of 2007, there were 1,662 such courts across the country.14

Thompson’s argument that reformers should give special attention to those being released from prison because they otherwise pose a significant risk of recidivism has also gained adherents. Rehabilitation has hardly been revived, but under the rubric of “re- entry” into society, states and the federal government are increasingly promoting programs that address the serious problems that ex-offenders face. As Helen Epstein has shown, “restorative justice” efforts, which seek to facilitate reintegration through counseling that encourages offenders to take personal responsibility for their wrongdoing, have demonstrated positive results.15 Still, while acknowledging personal responsibility is undoubtedly important, it won’t do the trick without a place to live, a job, and strong family ties.

States have also increasingly sought to ameliorate the effects of laws that deny ex-felons the right to vote. “Felony disenfranchisement” laws render large numbers of African-American men ineligible to vote, and extend the racial disparities in the criminal justice system into electoral politics. As a result of these laws, one in eight black men of voting age is ineligible to vote. The laws also frustrate reintegration, for they imply is that an ex-offender can never be a full citizen. Since 1997, nineteen states have amended their laws to mitigate these restrictions and give ex-offenders more opportunity to regain their eligibility to vote.16 With five million potential voters still affected, there is much more work to be done, but the trend line is positive.

Finally, several states, including California and Texas, have sought to reduce the drain on their budgets caused by their prisons by identifying nonviolent offenders who can be released early without posing a threat to the community. Under a program called “Justice Reinvestment,” spearheaded by the Council of State and Local Governments and supported by the US Justice Department, some states, including Connecticut, Kansas, Vermont, and Texas, have also redirected some of the money saved by early release to the high-risk neighborhoods from which so much of the imprisoned population comes. The idea is that if states invest in these communities, they may save money in the long run by reducing the numbers of community members who commit crimes.

The impetus for these reforms has more often than not been economic. States simply cannot afford to continue devoting huge and growing portions of their dwindling budgets to prisons and jails, and are increasingly interested in determining whether there are people in prison who need not be there. Since two thirds of prisoners are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses, and many of those for nonviolent drug offenses in particular, these reforms make clear budgetary sense.

The demographic character of the prison population (and of the communities most at risk of future incarceration) means that reform need not be motivated by concern about race and class disparities in order to have a disproportionate benefit for African-Americans and Latinos. Virtually any measure that reduces reliance on prisons will disproportionately benefit African-Americans and Latinos, even if it is motivated by the bottom line, not justice.

At the same time, our addiction to punishment should be troubling not only because it is costly and often counterproductive, but because its race and class disparities are morally unacceptable. The most promising arguments for reform, therefore, must appeal simultaneously to considerations of pragmatism and principle. The very fact that the US record is so much worse than that of the rest of the world should tell us that we are doing something wrong, and the sheer waste of public dollars and human lives should impel us toward reform. But as the authors of these three books make clear, we will not understand the problem fully until we candidly confront the fact that our criminal justice system would not be tolerable to the majority if its impact were felt more broadly by the general population, and not concentrated on the most deprived among us.

  1. 12

    FBI, Crime in the United States, 2008.

  2. 13

    Jonathan P. Caulkins, C. Peter Rydell, William Schwabe, and James Chiesa, Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences: Throwing Away the Key or the Taxpayers’ Money?, (RAND, 1997), pp. xvii–xviii.

  3. 14

    BJA Drug Court Clearinghouse, American University, Drug Court Activity Update: Composite Summary Information (January 2007); available at www1.spa.american.edu/justice/docu ments/1956.pdf.

  4. 15

    Helen Epstein, “America’s Prisons: Is There Hope?,” The New York Review, June 11, 2009.

  5. 16

    Ryan S. King, Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997–2008 (Sentencing Project, 2008), p. 1.

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