Wednesday, October 7, 2015


I just read an article entitled The Prison Problem.  It discusses the issue with mass incarceration in the US and the reasons for it.  The main thrust of the article is that the various explanations tossed around for the huge increase in the prison population don't adequately explain it.  This article and some of the replies to it illustrate the difficulties in having such a discussion even when the people involved might well agree with one another on many or even most points.

Clearly the war on drugs is a factor in prison populations.  However, we can't simply assume that we could end the war on drugs, pardon all drug offenders who don't have other convictions, and empty out the prisons.  That would only reduce the prison population 20%.  Now 20% is a massive 300,000 people and releasing them would make a ton of sense but that wouldn't bring the prison population in the US anywhere near in line with the rest of the world.  They need more like an *80%* decrease to comfortably blend with the mass of other large, developed nations.

The author David Brooks gets a lot of flak in the comments for pointing this out even though Brooks doesn't come out as supporting the war on drugs in any way - he is just making it clear that you can't chalk everything up to this one factor.  Unfortunately that sort of thing gets people riled up even if he isn't disagreeing with them.  The US imprisons about as many people per capita for non violent drug crimes as many other nations imprison for ALL crimes.  That has to stop... but doing so won't suddenly end the prison population problem and pretending it would is counterproductive because it blocks discussion of other important issues.

Brooks also talks about mandatory minimum sentences, and this is where he goes wrong.  He says that since average sentence length hasn't increased over the era where mandatory minimums were in place, obviously mandatory minimums haven't done much.  That is ridiculous because mandatory minimums change all kinds of things about the system.  They encourage people to plea bargain even when innocent or when they should be getting a much lighter sentence.  They force the judicial system to hand out longer than appropriate sentences.  If the average sentence length is the same, then it is far more likely that without mandatory minimums sentence length would have dropped, overall convictions would go down, and the prison population would be drastically less.  Estimating how much of an impact this has had, however, is really hard.

Lastly Brooks talks about how there are issues with prosecutors pushing for harsher sentences and more convictions, which I would believe but don't know a lot about, and also mental institutions being emptied and the people therein ending up in prison, which I know is a real problem.

Unfortunately when you write an article about highly politicized things like drug policy, prison sentencing, and mental health you are going to end up in a quagmire of anger no matter how reasoned you try to be.  Even tacking on an addendum of "but doing this won't solve X problem completely" brings out the rage in people who want to see this being done.  Reading these articles and particularly the arguments in the comments really makes it clear how elections end up being about building walls across entire national borders and a handful of women wearing scarves - it is nearly impossible to talk about real issues in a nuanced manner without running afoul of people who you don't actually disagree with.

I am not putting Brooks on a pedestal here, keep in mind, nor trashing him too badly.  He wrote an article whose central message is that the prison population problem is complicated and cannot be explained by one or even two simple factors - it is a result of many things and they should all be considered.  That central thesis is certainly true.  He got some things right and got wildly misunderstood... but he also got some things wrong, and because this is the internet he got wildly misunderstood about those too just to make everything super confusing.

I struggle with this whole thing with my writing on a regular basis.  If I write too quickly, with too little thought and research, I get called out for being wrong.  Sometimes I am wrong, and sometimes I am just misunderstood.  But taking the time to write and research well, and putting enough down on the page that everything is extremely unambiguous, is a big project for both me and those reading it.  So much easier to just yell about Mexicans and Muslims and terrorism and call it a day.  Sadly, that also appears to be the thing that works to get you elected to high office too.


  1. Can you point to the links where you were wrong? I can only assume they include ones I commented on, but I don't recall any admittance of such. :-)

  2. One thing to keep in mind is that David Brooks has written many things over the years, and thus people will have a pretty good idea at this point of his priors. Some of the negative reactions are going to be due to reading this column in light of his previous work.