The “System” of Prisons

Politicians throw the term “reform” around all the time, and it usually means nothing. One problem that most agree requires reform is the US prison system. VICE did a fantastic job with their report, “Fixing the System,” which aired on HBO, about America’s broken criminal justice system. You can see it on YouTube:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can see the video here.

In July, VICE followed Mr. Obama to the El Reno Correctional Institution in El Reno, Oklahoma, and recorded the first time a presently serving president sat down with a bunch of inmates at a prison. He talked about their families, how they got into crime, why they copped a plea, what kind of businesses they’d like to start, how they might get financing to start those businesses, what kind of responsibilities they have as parents and to their communities, the reasons for and against the War on Drugs, and the impact of the cycle of mass incarceration on communities of color.

Perhaps a little background. The US has 2.2 million prison inmates. China is second with 1.5 million, and Russia third with 874,000. According to, The US incarcerates 716 people for every 100,000 residents, more than any other country. And Vox reports that 16 US states have more people in prisons than in college housing!

The HBO show says that this era of mass incarceration came about due to the war on drugs which focused on crack cocaine, meaning that many nonviolent people of color wound up in prison. Next, mandatory-minimum sentencing laws led to a throw-away-the-key culture, with long, destructive prison terms.

Well, leave it to David Brooks to take exception yesterday to the common view that prison reform would be a net positive for American society:

The drug war is not even close to being the primary driver behind the sharp rise in incarceration. About 90% of America’s prisoners are held in state institutions. Only 17% of these inmates are in for a drug-related offense, or less than one in five.

See what he did there? Brooks reframed the discussion to state prisons. Sadly, on the federal level, 48% were in prison for drug crimes, according to Department of Justice statistics. Brooks also misunderstands that the Federal sentencing minimums do not necessarily apply in state courts. He is incorrect that states hold 90% of prisoners. They hold 64%, or 1.4 million of the 2.2 million prisoners. They do hold the vast majority of violent offenders, with 725,000 (53%) jailed for violent offenses. Brooks wanders around and at the end, lands in his typically happy place:

Lifting the spirits of inmates, as described in the outstanding Atlantic online video “Angola for Life,” can also help. But the fundamental situation won’t be altered without a comprehensive surge, unless we flood the zone with economic, familial, psychological and social repair.

Well, Mr. Brooks, if you wanted to make sure that nothing changed, you would recommend waiting for an entire cluster of problems to be addressed, not one of which is remotely likely to happen. He doesn’t support any solutions. And he studiously avoids the stacked deck that makes the prison population so black.

He also missed the other elephant in the room. You can’t escape the parallel between mass incarceration and the growth of for-profit prisons. These corporations have contracts that require that cities and states provide them sufficient prisoners to meet an agreed number, or pay the prison in cash.

This incentivizes putting people behind bars, and should have nothing to do with free market capitalism. This is a policy error that must be corrected.

Two final points:

• Crime flourishes in areas where economic abandonment has produced poor schools and poor prospects. Yet Brooks has argued in the past that the minimum wage should not be raised, that welfare is wasted on moochers, and that the social safety net is too expensive to maintain.
• The plea-bargain system is another culprit. Somewhere in the 1970s, prosecutors figured out an easier way. Threaten an accused with massive charges and punishments, and then propose a plea bargain to a lesser charge. Because people are risk-averse, and/or do not have the money to hire the lawyers to fight the worst charges, they accept the plea bargain and end up in jail, without a trial. This is why it’s always important (if you can do so) to get in contact with a firm such as Mark Rees Law and similar alternatives to ensure you get a fair trial when it comes to your court date.

Conservatives like to cite the number of one-parent households and how the lack of both parents around makes it more likely that a child from a poor area will become a criminal. Mr. Brooks seems to think that releasing non-violent drug offenders from prison will not have much effect on society. But many prisoners are parents.

How many children could have a parent back with them, and maybe avoid incarceration themselves?

See the documentary. Reform the system!


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