Why Isn’t More Happening to Reduce America’s Bloated Prison Population?
In this era of hyperpartisanship, the liberal-libertarian convergence on criminal-justice reform is, frankly, astonishing. Everyone from the Koch brothers to George Soros, from Tea Party Texan Sen. Ted Cruz to Democrat Hillary Clinton are singing from the same hymnal: “Today, far too many young men — and in particular African-American young men . . . find themselves subject to sentences of many decades for relatively minor, nonviolent drug infractions,” Cruz told reporters in February, before implausibly invoking French literature. “We should not live in a world of Les Misérables, where a young man finds his entire future taken away by excessive mandatory minimums.” In one of her first major policy speeches of the 2016 campaign, Clinton decried “inequities” in our system that undermine American ideals of justice and declared, “It is time to end the era of mass incarceration.”
But as unusual as the setup is, the punchline, in Washington, remains the same. Outside of limited executive actions by the Obama administration, durable reform is stymied. Entrenched interests from prosecutors to private prisons remain a roadblock to change. Meaningful bills are tied up by law-and-order ideologues like Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, the 81-year-old who brands his adversaries as belonging to “the leniency industrial complex.”
Progress in the states, meanwhile, is modest at best. “Nobody’s trying to hit home runs,” admits Grover Norquist, the GOP’s anti-tax czar and a leading conservative advocate for reform. “This is all about singles and not yet any doubles.”
The imperative for criminal-justice reform is aching and obvious: In the past 40 years, the U.S. prison population rose 500 percent. The drug war has been the biggest driver: There are more people locked up today for drug offenses alone than the entire prison system held in 1970.
According to a 2014 report on mass incarceration by the National Academies of Sciences, more black men born in the post-Civil Rights era have served time in prison than graduated from a four-year college. Where one in 87 white men is in jail or prison, for African-American men the number is one in 12. The U.S. has less than five percent of the world’s population, but nearly a quarter of its prisoners. As 2016 Democratic dark horse and longtime reform advocate Jim Webb writes, “Either we are home to the most evil people on Earth or we are doing something dramatically wrong in how we approach criminal justice.”
The success of criminal-justice reform will depend on the depth and durability of this unlikely coalition between the left and the right.
The injustice of our justice system is so inescapable even U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder denounced it, writing during his final months in office that “policies designed to be ‘tough on crime’ have perpetuated a vicious cycle,” the effect of which has been to “devastate entire communities — particularly communities of color.”
If such data points raise liberal hackles, the conservative case against mass incarceration is just as compelling. Americans spend more than $80 billion a year keeping our fellow citizens on lockdown. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, the average per-prisoner cost of incarceration is more than $31,000 a year, a price tag that can rise as high as $60,000 in New York. This is not just a drag on state budgets. The federal government itself spends more than $8 billion on incarceration and detention, and offers nearly $3.8 billion more in criminal-justice subsidies to states.
“Spending more money is not being tougher on crime,” Norquist told Wisconsin conservatives in April. “Putting more people in prison is not being tough on crime — it’s just a waste.”