Few claims about contemporary American society are more widely accepted on the left than that the dramatic growth of our prisons and jails has been driven by the war on drugs. In July 2015, President Barack Obama maintained that “the real reason our prison population is so high” is that we have “locked up more and more nonviolent drug offenders than ever before, for longer than ever before.” In her widely read 2010 book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander similarly argued that the war on drugs, pursued for the purpose of subordinating African-Americans newly freed from segregation, is primarily responsible for mass incarceration. These views have become conventional wisdom in liberal circles. But what if they are wrong?
There is little dispute that the United States faces a crisis of mass incarceration. Every year from 1972 to 2008, the number of Americans behind bars grew—at rates that far outstripped that of the population generally. As a result, the per capita rate of imprisonment increased nearly sixfold, from 93 per 100,000 to 536 per 100,000. Today, the rate has fallen slightly to 458 per 100,000, but there are still about 2.3 million people in our jails and prisons. (The overwhelming majority of this population—about two million people—are in local and state facilities, with federal prisons accounting for another 197,000 people, and other facilities such as immigrant detention and juvenile detention centers accounting for the rest.) Overall, we lock up more citizens than any other country in the world.
It is also indisputable that blacks and Hispanics are vastly overrepresented among those behind bars. They make up 31 percent of the general population, but almost twice that proportion—59 percent—of the state prison population. As the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.–based criminal justice reform advocacy organization, notes in a 2013 report:
African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino males—compared to one of every seventeen white males.1
Critics of these racial disparities, myself included, have often focused on drug crimes; while some of the racial disparities in the prison population reflect higher rates of offending among blacks and Hispanics, particularly with respect to violent and property crimes, the same is not true for drug offenses.2
According to anonymous surveys…
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