It’s a measure of the success of the movement against mass incarceration that John Pfaff calls the analysis first laid out in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” the “Standard Story” about why U.S. prison populations have skyrocketed in the past 40 years. However, the fact that he frames his more statistics-driven analysis as being in significant opposition to Alexander’s book probably has more to do with the tension between insider reformers of the prison system and the politically Left protest movement that Alexander’s book helped build.
According to Pfaff, not only does the “Standard Story” get the causes of mass incarceration wrong, but it makes it harder to solve the problem by ignoring some major drivers of the increase in prison population. However, it’s questionable that there would be nearly as much public opposition to mass incarceration in the first place without the attention that Alexander and other writers brought to the subject.
Alexander’s analysis details how mass incarceration maintains White supremacy, and there’s nothing in Pfaff’s analysis that challenges this fundamental point. If this were a conversation, it would be as if the two writers were talking past each other. However, because it’s Pfaff who is framing his book in opposition to the “Standard Story” that’s already out there, it’s really his responsibility to address the movement’s deeper concerns, as well as pointing out the things Alexander missed.
Pfaff may be taking on Alexander simply as a way to get people to pay attention (and buy the book). His analysis may differ from hers in terms of the causes of mass incarceration and the best ways to end it, but it’s easy to imagine the same arguments being framed not as refuting Alexander but supplementing her arguments and providing some useful policy directions. His analysis of the driving forces of mass incarceration, backed up by detailed statistical analysis, is fairly compelling and makes the book worth reading. Just ignore the potshots at the “Standard Story.”
Pfaff’s objections to the accepted story about mass incarceration boil down to two main points. First, Pfaff points out that the war on drugs, a major player in Alexander’s analysis, accounts for only a portion of the growth in the prison population. A larger portion comes from increased penalties for so-called “violent” offenders. Pfaff also makes the point that using that term itself makes it hard to think about reducing penalties for those inmates.
Second, while Alexander points to long mandatory sentences as a major cause of prison growth, Pfaff argues that it’s really an increase in prison admissions that accounts for most of the increase. According to Pfaff, this increase is driven mostly by the decisions of prosecutors. Prosecutors decide what kind of charges to bring against offenders and what kind of deals to make (most convictions are the result of plea deal negotiations rather than jury trials), which has a major impact on the length of prison terms, or even whether someone goes to prison at all. Pfaff points out that there is very little supervision, regulation or even data about how prosecutors make these decisions. Because prosecutor offices are mostly independent of detailed judicial or legislative oversight, and most head prosecutors, except at the federal level, are elected rather than appointed, this raises important questions for how the movement against mass incarceration can address them.
But his assertion that the focus on the war on drugs “makes it harder” to end mass incarceration has very little evidence behind it. Mostly, he’s suggesting that some prison reformers (likely not those on the Left) will consent to increase sentences for people convicted of violent offenses as a trade-off for reduced sentences for “nonviolent” drug offenders.
To be fair, Pfaff doesn’t argue with the existence of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and, in a very low-key way, indicates that he’s against them. But he’s an academic, not a political activist, more interested in the nuts and bolts of how the various authorities in the field operate and interact and how this can be corrected through material incentives.
Pfaff’s analysis of how the reform movement should operate and some of his policy solutions, unlike his discussion of the drivers of mass incarceration, are not grounded in data, and take the current political climate and social structure as givens. There’s a subtext here: that ending mass incarceration would best be done by turning the problem over to the experts, who can be trusted to engineer a system of incentives that will reduce prosecutors’ discretion, divert money from prisons to more effective social programs and mental health services and reorient prison administrations to measure success in terms of reducing recidivism rather than filling prison beds. Whether these incentives would work is a matter of opinion — even Pfaff isn’t totally sure.
Particularly questionable are Pfaff’s suggestions to insulate legislators and prosecutors from public pressure (using the argument that the public will inevitably push harsher laws and sentences) and to increase the use of private prisons (because private businesses should be more responsive to incentives to reduce recidivism than government bureaucracies). Both suggestions miss the broader implications of how each of these measures would give unaccountable actors more power in what’s supposed to be a democratic society, essentially trusting them to correct the underlying racism in the system. And we all know how that tends to play out.
An alternative, of course, is to build political movements like Black Lives Matter, which hold the potential to change the conversation rather than ducking the issue. The push for prison reform would not be happening at this scale without the understanding that mass incarceration has its roots in racism and classism; ending it effectively requires a movement, not just a series of technical fixes.
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