Should Prisoners Be Set Free

Over 5,000 “non-violent” federal inmates may be getting released starting at the end of May 2016 according to the US Dept. Of Justice. Presidential democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton decried what she called this “era of mass incarceration.”

More than half of federal inmates are nonviolent drug offenders.” Senator Rand Paul has called mass incarceration “the new Jim Crow,” and Carly Fiorina suggested that “we have the highest incarceration rates in the world. Two-thirds of the people in our prisons are there for nonviolent offenses, mostly drug-related. It is clearly not working.”

Advocates for de-incarceration often cite the number of federal prisoners who committed non-violent drug offenses. This is highly misleading. Of the 1.6 million inmates in America, only about 200,000 are federal prisoners. About half of federal inmates are sentenced for drug crimes, but this shouldn’t shock anyone. Nearly all violent crimes are state matters. It’s a federal crime to transport a kidnap victim across state lines, to attempt to assassinate a federal official, and so forth. But robberies, rapes, assaults, and murder are mostly state matters. Among state inmates, only one in six is a drug offender.

The assertion that most of the people incarcerated are there for non-violent crimes is false. Among the 50 percent of “non-violent” federal drug offenders, it’s difficult to know how many were arrested for a violent crime and plea-bargained to a lesser offense. Nor do we have good data on how many were previously convicted of a violent crime. A 2004 Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that 95 percent of those who served time in state prisons for non-violent crimes had a preceding criminal history (typically 9.3 arrests and 4.1 convictions) and 33 percent had a history of arrests for violent crime.

Getting on the “de-incarceration” bandwagon can be seen as a way to show sympathy with African Americans and Hispanic American who are disproportionately represented among inmates. But the primary victims of crime are also African Americans and Hispanics. The crime rate has declined drastically since 1990. According to the FBI, violent crime increased by nearly 83 percent between 1973 and 1991 — a period of criminal-justice leniency. From 1991 to 2001, when incarceration rates increased, violent crime declined by 33.6 percent. The decline has persisted.

There are many theories about the cause of the drop in crime (abortion, removing lead from paint, the waning of the crack epidemic, policing strategies), and some or all of those factors may have played a part, but the “incapacitation” argument — criminals who are behind bars cannot be mugging people — seems awfully strong. It would, of course, be a better world if fewer Americans were growing up in neighborhoods where fatherlessness, intergenerational government dependency, and poor schools contribute to high rates of crime.

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