After President Biden pardoned Americans convicted of federal possession of marijuana last week, reform supporters hailed his action as a ‘historic’ step away from mass incarceration, while critics slammed it. lamented as another blow to public safety. The truth is a little less important: Pardons only affect about 6,500 people, none of whom are currently in prison, and drug-related crimes make up only a small portion of America’s prison population.
The extreme reactions on both sides are consistent with the distorted public perceptions of the effects of the war on drugs on our criminal justice system, which activists and the media have propagated through books like Michelle Alexander’s. The new Jim Crow and documentaries like 13th. This component of the prison reform narrative is misleading and distracts from the more urgent work of finding solutions to violent crime.
Of the approximately 145,000 people in federal prisons and 1,040,000 people in state prisons, less than 3.5% are incarcerated for a drug possession conviction. Even when extending the scope beyond simple possession to all other types of drug offenses (many of which are associated with violent cartels and gangs), the proportion only increases 18%.
The hard truth for criminal justice reformers is that violent crime is far more prevalent among American prisoners. At the state level, where nine out of ten prisoners are incarcerated, nearly 60% of inmates have committed violent crimes. About 143,000 people are imprisoned for sexual assault convictions and 155,000 for homicide, compared to 146,000 for all drug-related crimes. The idea that “mass” incarceration in America is the result of drug crimes is absurd.
America’s incarceration “problem” is directly related to its violent crime problem. The country’s incarceration rate – about 639 per 100,000 people – is four to six times that of its high-income peers in Europe and Asia. Without context, this statistic is alarming, but when you consider that the homicide rate in the United States is 7.5 times that of those same peer countries, our incarceration rate seems more justified.
Even the claim that those imprisoned for “non-violent” crimes are distinct from the rest of the criminal population is suspect. A 2021 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that those released from prison for drug-related crimes were actually more likely to be rearrested for a violent offense than those released for homicide or sexual assault.
My intention in presenting these sobering statistics is not to discourage reform. On the contrary, the dismal performance of our correctional facilities based on metrics such as prison return rates, post-release employment, and the health of prisoners and officers should all energize a commitment to reform. But conversations about how to change the criminal justice system must be grounded in reality.
As a starting point, reformers must stop deluding themselves and the public to believe that “mass decarceration” will be anything but a bloodbath. We should accept that prison is necessary for public safety and focus on transforming prisons into more effective institutions. Prisons should be centers of intervention and opportunity that equip inmates with the social and vocational skills needed to lead productive and peaceful lives upon their return to society. Prisons should develop rehabilitation programs that target the antisocial behaviors that drive violent crime and, above all, be held accountable for not achieving positive results. Prisons should be well staffed and correctional officers should be rewarded for making a difference in the lives of the people they work with. States across the country have achieved impressive results by funding probation and parole services based on positive outcomes; the same concept should apply to prisons.
In an era of rising violent crime and heightened attention to public safety, the reform movement will only survive if it recognizes that the reality of the criminal justice system is far more complex than the refrains of activists suggest. More importantly, reformers’ priorities must account for violent crime and create workable solutions to improve prisons, rather than continuing to indulge in the dangerous fantasy of abolition.