A New Theory on Mass Incarceration
Slate recently interviewed John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham University Law School, about his research into mass incarceration.
Professor Pfaff does not think that the War on Drugs is not the primary culprit of the mass incarceration crisis. He admits that the punishments for narcotics have gotten more draconian but his research shows that most people locked up in the past few decades were arrested and convicted for crimes of violence or property related crimes and these sentences are not longer than they were in the past. He thinks this comes from a combination of better policing and changes in attitude about who should be locked up and when.
A few years ago I remember reading an interview with a sports statistics guy who had a side fascination with murder and violent crime. I can’t remember the man’s name or where the interview took place. I do remember that he talked about how attitudes about murder and violent crime have changed since he was a child. His two anecdotal examples were bar fights and student athletes who drop dead during practice. The interviewee mentioned that when he was a child and young man in the 1950s and 60s, there would always be stories about bar brawls that ended with people getting seriously injured and/or accidentally killed. In his recollections, the police would ask if this was a fair fight and if they determined it was, no charges would be filed. He also said that coaches would not be tried for manslaughter or second degree murder if one of their student-athletes died from dehydration and/or overexertion during practice. This were just seen as assumed risks by society.
Professor Pfaff ends his interview by suggesting that it is very good to end the War on Drugs but it won’t really do anything to end the mass incarceration crisis. His suggestion is that we might need to come up with alternative punishments for people who commit violent crimes and property crimes.
I suspect and worry that coming up with alternative punishments for people who commit violent crimes is going make the debates over the War on Drugs look like tea time. It seems like a very hard (and highly politicized) task to come up with firm guidelines about when a violent or property crime deserves incarceration or not. If punishment is about providing incentives and deterrents, what is a proper non-incarceration incentive for someone like Bernie Maddoff or someone else who commits fraud that takes away millions or billions of dollars away from people. House arrest seems too light for the Madoffs of the world. I am also not sure it is a sign of an advanced and civilized society if we just have a blase attitude towards bar fights as things that happen and we only prosecute if the fight looked really unfair. But the current rate of mass incarceration is also highly problematic and unsustainable.
Update: Mike Schilling was able to tell me that the guy I was thinking of is Bill James. This allowed me to find the interview in Grantland.