By Ronald Fraser
For the first time since 1972 the number of people behind bars in American prisons and jails in 2015 declined slightly, to 2.2 million from 2.4 million in 2010. That’s the good news.
Fordham Law School professor John F. Pfaff, however, warns in his new book, “Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform,” that continued decline in prison populations will not come easily.
While decreasing drug-related sentencing accounts for the recent decline, Pfaff stresses that “focusing on drugs will only work in the short run.”
The drug war, Pfaff contends, contrary to popular belief, is not the primary cause of prison growth: “Freeing every single person who is in a state prison on a drug charge would only cut state prison populations back to where they were in 1996-1997, well into the ‘mass incarceration’ period.”
Pfaff’s recipe for a shrinking prison population goes like this:
• The real culprit behind our out-of-control prison populations is the 2,000-plus out-of-control state and local prosecutors – including the Erie County district attorney – who are able to coerce plea bargains and avoid trials in more than 95 percent of all cases they decide to prosecute.
“Prosecutors,” Pfaff tells us, “have been and remain the engines driving mass incarceration. Acting with wide discretion and little oversight, they are largely responsible for the staggering rise in admissions since the early 1990s.”
• Providing qualified public defenders and other counsel for indigent defendants will level the legal playing field and limit the wide discretion prosecutors now enjoy.
• Voters can’t cast informed ballots to elect local prosecutors in the absence of readily available information concerning the performance of prosecutors running for re-election. Appointing prosecutors will both add professional accountability and lessen tough-on-crime pressures from suburban voters calling for aggressive prosecution of inner-city crimes.
• Incarceration reforms are a state and local, not a federal, responsibility. Reforms might include guidelines to help prosecutors decide when to divert an accused person to probationary treatment or another option, rather than to press charges that could send the defendant to prison.
Pfaff cites research that suggests as inmates convicted of violent crimes grow older they may no longer be a danger to society, and extended prison sentences serve no useful purposes.
Graduated-release programs and early release for inmates over the age of 40 or who have served more than 15 years of a sentence are ways to reduce prison populations.
The author ends on this hopeful note: “The movement against mass incarceration had no option but to start where it did, focusing on drugs and other non-violent crimes.” But, he maintains, it is time to move on to the harder cases, and the time to start making that move is now.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.