The problem of mass incarceration is more complicated than we thought

February 09, 2017

by Alex Mikulich

(Books review)

Locked In by John Pfaff

Locking Up Our Own by James Forman

We live in a so-called post-fact, post-truth era when politicians and media attempt to manipulate public opinion to their narrow interests. Yet, as President Obama warned in his farewell address, “reality has a way of catching up with you.” On the reality of mass incarceration, the question is whether or not we will catch up with it.

Two new books help readers catch up with the reality of how the United States became the world’s incarceration leader. The authors, John Pfaff of Fordham University Law School and James Forman of Yale University Law School, unflinchingly cast their eyes on the hard reality of mass incarceration. They demonstrate the enduring—and crying—need for objective scholarship.

John Pfaff’s Locked-In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform dismantles the argument made by Michelle Alexander in her award-winning book, The New Jim Crow. The first part of Locked In challenges the reigning consensus—the “standard story”—buttressed by Alexander’s work.

Pfaff, whose exacting prose meticulously explores every data set and perspective, begins by explaining how the standard story is wrong about the origins of mass incarceration. Pundits and academics often indict the failed drug wars of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. While Nixon employed tough rhetoric against crime, his policy actually favored public health responses over punitive enforcement. Furthermore, prison populations did not budge much during his presidency.

An opposite problem arises in Reagan’s case. By the time Reagan gave his “war on drugs” speech, the U.S. incarceration rate had risen nearly 80 percent over the past decade. The “slow, steady climb” of incarceration, Pfaff writes, was already well underway. More important, however, a narrow focus on the president is misplaced. In reality, there are over 3,000 wars on drugs and crime waged by district attorneys and local law enforcement.

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