OPINION: We’re having the wrong conversation on mass incarceration

A line of blue silhouettes stand behind a barbed wire fence.
Graphic by Natalie Bauer

The U.S. locks up more people per capita than any other country in the world, according to an online prison database, with particularly devastating consequences for poor people, people of color and the families and communities of those incarcerated.

Yet even with much of the media and political attention focused on the enormity of mass incarceration, we are nowhere close to truly taking on the problem.   

True, we are having a conversation, but it’s the wrong one. 

When discussing the causes of mass incarceration, politicians are keen to talk about the low-hanging fruit (most popularly non-violent drug offenses and private prisons) but don’t seem interested in thinking about the bigger, more challenging drivers of mass incarceration. 

As a result, their solutions barely address the problem. 

The one fact that no Democratic presidential candidate will broach is that the majority of our prison population is actually made up of people serving time for violent offenses. 

Over half the people serving time in state prisons are convicted of violent offenses, which include murder, assault, robbery, rape and sexual assault, according to Fordham University law professor John Pfaff. 

Even if more than half the people in prison was released, the U.S. would still have an incarceration rate higher than that of nearly every country in Europe, Pfaff said.

Yet presidential contenders completely avoid talking about violent offenses. 

Consider what they have proposed. One oft-discussed action with unanimous support is to start treating drug crimes less harshly, especially those that are marijuana-related, Pfaff noted. Based on how much politicians talk about the war on drugs and drug crimes, it would seem that nonviolent drug offenders make up a sizable chunk of our incarcerated population.  

And Americans believe exactly that. 

A majority of them incorrectly think that half of all U.S. prisoners are incarcerated for drug offenses, according to a Morning Consult and Vox poll. In reality, statistics from a study by Prison Policy Initiative show that drug offenses make up only 15 percent of the people serving time in state prisons.  

Another popular solution is to shut down private prisons. Sen. Cory Booker, D-Nj., has called them “repugnant,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., has called them racist and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Ca., has even said phasing out private prisons would be among her first acts as president, according to The Marshall Project

That’s all well and good, and shutting down private prisons is a positive step toward decarceration. But the reality is that they account for less than 8 percent of prisoners in the U.S., based on figures from PPI. 

It’s understandable why politicians don’t want to talk about releasing violent offenders. 

Showing more clemency to non-violent drug offenders has broad appeal among Americans; treating violent offenders less harshly does not, according to the Vox poll. 

But if politicians are not willing to push the boundaries of public opinion, we will never get to addressing mass incarceration.

The common perception is that people in prison for violent crimes are too dangerous to be released. But people convicted of sexual assault and homicide are among the violent offenders least likely to commit another crime in the five years after being released, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Yet it’s they who are usually subjected to unduly harsh, decades-long sentences. 

State and local prosecutors have the power to change that by shortening the length of sentences and reducing the number of life sentences handed out. 

Yet prosecutors currently have vast and unchecked authority over convictions and even enjoy absolute immunity under the law, according to The New York Times magazine reporter Emily Bazelon. 

She noted that more than 95 percent of criminal convictions are resolved through a plea agreement, suggesting that we must focus on the role of prosecutors in any discussion on mass incarceration.  

The last few years have seen some positive changes on prosecution, with the rise of progressive prosecutors across the U.S. 

In 2019, Wesley Bell, a criminal justice professor who demonstrated against the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, became a prosecuting attorney for St. Louis county. 

Within 100 days, his office had reduced the county jail’s population by 12 percent, its lowest level since 2002, according to a report by The Guardian. Progressive prosecutors like Bell and the high-profile Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, among others, have enacted important reforms on the path toward decarceration. 

But it’s not enough. 

Lawmakers must introduce legislation to hold prosecutors more accountable. That should include ending absolute immunity for prosecutors and requiring more transparency in their decision-making process, among other things. 

Meanwhile, public attitudes, which are often responsible for prosecutors’ running and winning on “tough-on-crime” platforms, must shift in favor of restorative and community justice programs. 

It’s easy to talk about the “low-hanging fruit” of non-violent crimes. But addressing criminal justice reform requires us to fundamentally change the way we think about and treat violent offenses in our society. 

If our presidential candidates don’t tackle this inconvenient truth in the upcoming debates, it will mean, unfortunately, that they’re not really interested in ending the horror show of U.S. mass incarceration. 

Sarthak Sharma PO ’20 is from Kathmandu, Nepal. He’s a double major in politics and economics, and he misses being an active contributor to Claremont Crushes.

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