Some notes on criminal justice reform in the U.S.

  1. Vox’s German Lopez reviews Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, by John Pfaff.
    1. Prison population growing because violent offenders being incarcerated at state and local level, not Federal.  Pfaff: “In reality, only about 16 percent of state prisoners are serving time on drug charges — and very few of them, perhaps only around 5 or 6 percent of that group, are both low level and nonviolent,” he writes. “At the same time, more than half of all people in state prisons have been convicted of a violent crime.”
    2. Forgotten locus of incarceration is prosecutors, “More than 90 percent of criminal convictions are resolved through a plea agreement.”
      1. Pfaff : “No major piece of state-level reform legislation has directly challenged prosecutorial power (although some reforms do in fact impede it), and other than a few, generally local exceptions, their power is rarely a topic in the national debate over criminal justice reform.”
    3. Confusion of stock and flow. Great graph from Brookings.
    4. “Hiring a police officer is probably about as expensive as hiring a prison guard, for example, but investing in police has a much bigger deterrent effect and avoids all the capital expenditures of prisons,” Pfaff argues. “Steven Levitt has estimated that $1 spent on policing is at least 20 percent more effective than $1 spent on prisons.”
  2. Heritage Foundation’s John Malcolm, a very clear overview of criminal justice issues and policies.
    1. “In my opinion, under our current system, too many relatively low-level drug offenders are locked up for 5, 10, and 20 years when lesser sentences would, in all likelihood, more than satisfy the legitimate penological goals of general deterrence, specific deterrence, and retribution.”
    2. “To those who fear that reforming mandatory minimum laws will invariably lead to increases in crime, I would note that over 30 states have taken steps to roll back mandatory sentences, especially for low level drug offenders, since 2000.[41] Crime rates have, for the most part, continued to drop in those states. For example, Michigan eliminated mandatory minimum sentencing for most drug offenses in 2002 and applied the change retroactively (nearly 1,200 inmates became eligible for immediate release), yet between 2003 and 2012, violent crime rates dropped 13 percent and property crime rates dropped 24 percent. Texas has implemented a number of changes, including reduced sentences for drug offenders,[42] and crime rates are their lowest level in that state since 1968.[43]
    3. “develop a robust, scientifically-sound and statistically-valid, post-sentencing risk and needs assessment tool that incorporates both static and dynamic factors”
  3. William A. Galston and Elizabeth McElvein of Brookings have a nice piece that reviewed legislative proposals in 2016, none of which passed.
    1. “If lawmakers are serious about reducing the federal prison population, reforms that target low-level drug offenders and certain weapons offenders will have the greatest impact.”


About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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