George Will's Weak Defense of Our Embarrassing Incarceration Rates

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If you take George Will's word for it, you might come away thinking we're 2 million more prisoners away from ending crime in America once and for all. His Sunday Washington Post column, More Prisoners, Less Crime, begins by attacking liberals for not loving incarceration enough, proceeds to deny racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and closes by suggesting that prisons might be better for society than universities. Needless to say, it was linked approvingly by the White House drug czar, John Walters.

Will would have us believe that all progress towards reducing crime rates is the exclusive result of increased incarceration, ignoring all other factors, and even mocking "liberals" who focus on addressing "flawed social conditions." Amazingly, Will manages to reach his singular conclusion without even telling us how far crime rates have actually dropped. It's a glaring and convenient omission, since any criticism of his shallow and needlessly partisan analysis is difficult without knowing what numbers he's looking at. For example, since the incarceration boom began in the 1970's, the biggest drop in crime rates occurred during the mid-90's, a period of increased economic opportunity, which took place under a democratic administration.

In his book "The Great American Crime Decline," crime expert Franklin Zimring, PhD notes:

Since a huge increase in incarceration was the major policy change in
American criminal justice in the last three decades of the twentieth
century, one would expect many observers to give this boom in
imprisonment the lion's share of the credit for declining crime in the
United States. One problem with such an assumption is that massive
doses of increased incarceration had been administered throughout the
1970s and 1980s with no consistent and visible impact on crime.


The Vera Institute reports that only 25% of the crime drop of the mid-90's was attributable to incarceration. Moreover, since the prison population grew by a staggering 638% between 1970 and 2005, any benefits actually derived through incarceration are achieved at a massive cost, both fiscally and in terms of huge numbers of individual people whose imprisonment didn’t actually reduce crime. I mean, crime didn't drop 638%, obviously.

The idea of using incarceration to incapacitate the most serious offenders is ancient and perfectly logical in and of itself. A small minority of offenders commit a large percentage of crimes, thus if we can remove the worst recidivists from society, we'll achieve substantial gains in crime control. The problem is that each successive year of heavy incarceration will impact fewer of these serious offenders, precisely because so many of them are already behind bars. These diminishing returns ensure that lock 'em up policies will become progressively less effective over time, thus incapacitation could not achieve a sustained or proportionate crime reduction even if it were the sole factor, which it is not.

Finally, much of this has limited, if any, applicability to the illicit drug market, which has thoroughly withstood the incarceration boom. Drug sales, unlike rapes and murders, never decrease when the people responsible are removed. Thus, the Drug Czar's enthusiasm for Will's conclusions may have more to do with his appreciation for any spirited defense of the prison population than an actual belief that we've made progress towards reducing the drug trade specifically. Disruptions in the drug market actually increase violence, as we're seeing in Mexico, therefore any sustained reductions in violent crime we've achieved through incarceration could be expanded dramatically by ending the drug war and regulating illicit drug sales. There is absolutely no public safety interest in incapacitating non-violent drug offenders, who will only be replaced, while the State continues to foot the bill for their imprisonment.

Fortunately, for anyone frustrated by the mindlessness of those who still defend our embarrassingly massive prison population, understand this: we literally cannot afford to keep doing this. Not because it has ravished urban communities, and thoroughly corrupted the administration of justice in America, nor because it has fostered the growth of a paramilitary police state that routinely steamrolls the due process of our laws. And not even because the people themselves have grown suspicious of our towering prison industrial complex and the tiresome rhetoric employed by its champions. We cannot afford to keep doing this because we just don’t have enough money to indefinitely continue supporting these horrible things.

Eventually, even our most vengeful and ferocious legislators and bureaucrats will have to make better decisions about who to put in our prisons. And when that day arrives, decades of so-called "tough-on-crime" talk will immediately be brushed to the fringes where it has belonged for generations.

Update: Unsurprisingly, Pete Guither is all over this at DrugWarRant.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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George Will considers himself oh so principled

But he won't explain what principle justifies alcohol supremacism over cannabis, I've asked him to do so many times. Politely at first, now with as much sarcasm as I can muster. I won't bore anyone with the full list of ways alcohol is far more dangerous than cannabis, most everyone who reads this already knows that. What a degenerate hypocrite and bigot he is. If people won't even attempt to explain why they can use alcohol but other folks can't use cannabis, then the bloodshed caused by the prohibition spawned black market in cannabis is squarely on their shoulders. If anyone thinks they can just order Americans not to use weed, while killer alcohol is at the center of American culture, they are dreamy fascists. Liberty and justice for all is the American way.

Thank you

All I've got to say is thank you for telling the truth and continuing to expose the hypocrisy of this society and the government. It's a crying shame that so many of the "oh so principled" ones are largely responsible for the mess this country and many of its inhabitants find themselves in, and yet they have the unmitigated gall to be condescending by suggesting that they know what's best for us. Keep on being a truth-teller and eventually the sleeping masses will wake up. Peace.

Freedom in America is not hunting down ever more prisoners

The White House drug czar and his cronnies must be off-their-rocker " ...that prisons might be better for society than universities."???? Crime is solved with education and opportunity, not creating lock-down criminal training camps (read:prisons). Why is everything in America today solved para-military?

Positive change happens when the so-called drug authorities, the Federal government, stops attacking drug users and starts treating them as human beings. The national drug control strategy needs to come clean; and provide honest drug education. We need CHANGE!

The Nazi Germans of WWII captured and locked up Jews just because they were different. Governments today capture and lock up drug users just because they are different. One can argue that drug users are a religion and perhaps a race?

Another "unintended consequence"

of the race to incarcerate that I see more and more evidence of is a generation that is not afraid of going to prison. So many of their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and best friends have been to prison or are there now that they just accept it as a part of life. I don't know what effect this has or will have on society but I wish our lawmakers would GROW UP and start considering the long-term consequences of their actions. What kind of world are they creating for our childrens' children?

Will's Column Ignores The Most Revealing Stats On Race

William Aiken

The headline of George Will's recent column in my local paper hit me like a ton of bricks, "DON'T BLAME RACISM FOR BLACK INCARCERATION RATE". I know Will isn't responsible for the headline of his columns. However, he failed to make his case by leaving out the most vital data we have on the subject of the drug war, race and prison rates. A lot of people just see the Headline and the name George Will and assume he's right on the money without reading the article.

Will's reliance on Heather MacDonald of the conservative Mahattan Institute to interperate crime stats was unfortunate and misleading. The most telling fact of the racial disparity of the drug war is the percentage of African-American drug users to the overall population(13%) and the percentage of African-American in prison for drug offenses(74%). Couple that data with the White drug use(63%) and their incarceration rates for drug crimes(15%) and it's perfectly clear that the Government's war on drugs is racially biased in it's enforcement and punishment. These statistics can't be dismissed by the drug war proponents as simply playing the race card.

Will steered clear of those facts to make his point that America has the world's largest inprisonment rate of it's citizen isn't such a bad thing, in fact it serves the greater good. I wish a more thoughtful, compassionate national columnist would take Will to task on his flawed assumptions. However, given that's unlikely to happen, I plan to write a letter to the Washington Post exposing Will's ignorance on this issue. I would encourage readers of this website to do the same.

Tough on crime...

Soft in the head. More prisoners equals land of the free? The phony drugwar was racist in it's inception and is racist in it's continuation...When will Will go away? When he's laughed out of print.

Of a kind

[email protected],Vancouver,B.C.Canada I found this article(Wills') while searching for something else but it became immediately evident that he was another of these smug,everything's OK if I'm OK,types with no empathy and even less concern for the lives of others.Steven Colbert's character would feel very comfortable having dinner with Mr.Will.Colbert ,himself would throw up.Everyone should read the article as it gives great insight into the way the right wing thinks.

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