October 9, 2000

October 9, 2000 | Commentary on Legal Issues

The Left's Prison Complex: The case against the case against jail.

The Left knows a growth industry when it sees one. Ever since prominent left-wing journalist Mike Davis popularized the term "prison industrial complex" in a 1995 Nation article, self-styled progressives have relentlessly derided America's burgeoning prison system as a racist, profit-driven monster that enriches corporations and wastes tax dollars while doing little to reduce crime.

The Left's attack on the prison system is wrong in every major respect. America's prison system doesn't discriminate against blacks, is not growing because of a search for profits, and has made America much safer than other countries. For the Left, attacking the prison system is little more than an excuse to recycle tired anticapitalist canards.

Little evidence exists that black criminals face discrimination in the criminal-justice system. Black "overrepresentation" in that system is in the number of criminals arrested. Racist cops aren't responsible for this disparity: Blacks get arrested at the same high rates in cities like Atlanta and Washington where the political establishment is almost entirely African-American and the police forces reflect the population's ethnic makeup. In a study on sentencing disparity commissioned by the Center for Equal Opportunity, former University of Maryland professor Robert Lerner finds that arrested blacks get sent to prison at a lower rate than arrested whites in just about every category that the government measures. Lerner found that blacks were twice as likely to get off on rape charges, around 50 percent more likely to escape punishment when charged with simple assault, and a third more likely to beat the rap on drug dealing. The difference in favor of black offenders existed in 12 out of 14 categories of crime. (The exceptions were traffic felonies and a small category of miscellaneous offenses.)

Black murderers face shorter sentences than their white counterparts and (contrary to leftist dogma) make fewer trips to death row. Even when it comes to the federal law punishing crack possession much more harshly than powder-cocaine possession-a favorite topic of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton-racism doesn't enter the picture. In his 1997 book Race, Crime and the Law, Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy shows that the law passed with the enthusiastic support of black congressmen who saw crack becoming the drug of choice in their districts. The use of methamphetamine and heroin-predominantly by whites-has soared in the 1990s, while the penalties for this use have remained stable. Would black Americans be better off if the situation were reversed, and crack dealing went on uninterrupted in American inner cities while police cracked down on rural whites using methamphetamine? If this happened, civil-rights leaders would organize protest marches in favor of stronger drug-enforcement efforts in inner cities-and would be right to do so.

The contention that the quest for profits has driven America's fourfold increase in prison capacity since 1980 is equally specious. Private-prison operators, a chief bugbear of the Left, incarcerate a measly 5 percent of America's convicts. Prisons contract out more services than they did 15 years ago, but so do nearly all other government agencies. The overwhelming majority of prison services remain in the hands of money-losing government bureaucracies. Unlike their military-industrial counterparts, which produce some of America's leading exports and sell civilian goods ranging from jetliners to computer hardware, major prison-related producers sell little outside of America's borders and almost nothing to private citizens. While a few states, California and Tennessee most prominently, do count corrections-industry groups among their most powerful lobbies, they remain exceptions. No sizeable cities have prison-reliant economies, and few people outside of declining farm towns actually want to live near prisons. Indeed, the presence of a large jail proved a major stumbling block in the effort to revitalize Chicago's South Loop.

It's not profits, but well-founded public outrage over criminals being set loose too soon that has driven America's gradual increase in length of prison sentences. In the early 1970s, as crime increased and prison sentences decreased, annual Gallup polls showed huge increases in Americans' fear of crime. The number of Americans telling pollsters that crime was a major political issue likewise increased sharply, as did public support for stiffer sentences.

Public sentiment was right. British researcher Donald E. Lewis's comprehensive examination of studies on the correlation between sentence length and crime rates (published in the British Journal of Criminology) concludes that doubling the length of the sentence for a crime will cut the likelihood that that crime will be committed by a little less than half. In a 1994 report on national sentencing policies published by the National Institute of Justice, Michael K. Block-a former member of the federal sentencing commission-found that violent criminals, on average, spent a little over three months in prison per reported crime, and even murderers were turned loose after serving an average of about five years. Sentences have increased a bit since 1994, but remain shockingly low. "There are too many criminals committing too many crimes," wrote Block. "We find ourselves [building more prisons] because for most of the last half of the 20th century, sentencing practices have not been harsh enough."

Locking up criminals for longer periods of time has proven one of America's most effective anticrime strategies. Honest liberals can't dispute James Q. Wilson's observation that "coincident with rising prison population there began in 1979-80 a steep reduction in the crime rate as reported by the victimization surveys." American property-crime rates peaked in 1974, fell slightly through most of the rest of the decade and then began a steep decline in the early 1980s. Violent-crime rates followed the same trendline, but rose for a few years in the late 1980s as crack swept inner cities, before dropping sharply in the 1990s. In 1973, nearly 60 percent of American households fell victim to property crimes. In 1999, fewer than 20 percent did. The same holds for violent crime: Had the 1999 crime rates been the same as those of 1990, America would have seen about 7,800 additional murders, 20,000 or so additional rapes, and nearly a quarter-million more armed attacks. Mapped against each other, America's rates of incarceration and overall crime form a neat X: As incarceration rates rose, crime fell.

Despite these facts, a widely cited 1997 report from the Sentencing Project, a left-leaning advocacy group, argued that America's high imprisonment rate has not reduced crime-because nations with lower incarceration rates are safer than the U.S. The study conveniently begins its analysis right before cheap, violence-inducing crack became widely available in America's cities, and ends it just as the epidemic began to wane. The crack epidemic drove up crime rates in the early years of the study, while the effects of improved policing and greater imprisonment didn't really take hold until after the period studied. Adding data from 1997, 1998, and 1999-years that saw some of the largest reductions in crime since the government started systematically tracking crime statistics in the 1920s-would have made the study's data into an argument for more incarceration.

The bulk of the evidence shows that longer sentences really do work. And an honest look at the international data presents a good case for building prisons: A 1998 study from the British Home Office, their equivalent of the Justice Department, cited the U.S. as one of only two major Western countries to see their crime rates drop between the late 1980s and late 1990s. Canada, France, England, and Switzerland all have more crime per capita than the United States. A study commissioned by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 1998, Englishmen were twice as likely as Americans to have their cars stolen, about a third more likely to get mugged by an armed assailant, and nearly ten times more likely to have their home broken into while it was occupied. The study's authors suggest an explanation: "An offender's risk of being caught, convicted and incarcerated has been rising in the United States but falling in England."

Indeed, many of the other factors that social scientists believe may reduce crime in America are present in other countries that put fewer people in prison and have seen crime fall far more slowly. Canada and Britain have both seen comparable economic prosperity during the late 1990s. Canada's police departments have made the same switch toward community policing as America's, which was itself based on British methods. While a shrinking population of men between their mid teens and late twenties did help reduce America's crime rates, the nation's youth population has begun rising again-even as nearly all other industrialized countries have seen much greater drops in their youth populations, and small or nonexistent drops in crime. Indeed, high-poverty American cities like Garden Grove, Calif., and McAllen, Tex.-not coincidentally located in states that have invested heavily in prison infrastructure-have seen their crime rates drop sharply even though their high-school-aged populations have skyrocketed.

America's prison system isn't perfect. "There's no intrinsic reason why conservatives should support [prisons]. They are big, they cost a lot of money, and they expand the role of the state," says Pat Nolan of the Justice Fellowship, the public-policy arm of Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship. "Take the DMV, string barbed wire, and give the clerks guns and you'll get the idea." Violence and brutality fill America's prisons: Between a quarter and a third of male prisoners get raped by their fellow inmates. Black- and white-nationalist gangs control many prisons and all too often have free rein to recruit new members.

For the Left, solving these problems is often beside the point; most leftists simply want to attack capitalism. "The companies that actually imprison people are only a small part of what's going on. We're talking about architects, food-service providers, companies that make software, the prison guards' unions," says Colorado journalist Joel Dyer, author of The Perpetual Prisoner Machine: How America Profits from Crime. "The real problem is the structure of our economy." Rising incarceration rates also provide an excuse for the Left to talk about many of its favorite issues. "You can use [America's imprisonment rate] to talk about class; you can deal with globalization and racism and poverty," says Daniel Burton-Rose of the Prison Activist Resource Center. "It lets you take on the entire system and educate people about why capitalism doesn't work." The situation in academia is little better. As the University of Delaware's Kenneth Haas, coeditor of the widely used anthology The Dilemmas of Corrections, correctly points out: "They've been writing articles for 20 years about the thesis that unemployment rates and imprisonment rates are linked. What you get is a lot of work done by quantitative sociologists who have an enormous leftward bias. They say nice things about each other to the National Science Foundation and nothing changes."

The Left's attack on the prison system has little to do with its nominal target and a lot to do with loathing for capitalism. America's prison system could stand some improvement, but we should remember that people go to prison because they commit crimes, not because others want to make money.

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Originally published in National Review (10/09/00)