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What Really Causes Mass Incarceration?

Armando Nava

In a new book, law professor John Pfaff unpacks the standard story of what causes mass incarceration in the United States. Prison overcrowding, racial disparities, and privatization are clear symptoms of a system in need of reform. To gain ground on correcting these symptoms, we need to properly understand the causes.

The Standard Story of Mass Incarceration

According to what Pfaff dubs the standard story, reformers chalk up mass incarceration to three prevailing factors:

  1. Institutionalized racism, whether deliberate, subconscious and systemic, or a combination of both,
  2. Mandatory minimum sentences, and
  3. Profit-driven incentives to fill cells, stemming from private prisons.

These factors do inflate our prison population, but Pfaff looks at the numbers and concludes their effects have been exaggerated. For example, only 8% of our prison population resides in private prisons – so even if we oppose the growth of profit-based models, as we should, we still have 92% of the prison population to address. As another example, our nation’s history of racist policies and practices certainly influences how we enforce laws and prosecute crimes, but it’s not the whole story. It’s also difficult to quantify, so while we work to correct those issues, we should be looking for additional avenues of reform.

The Role of Prosecutors in Mass Incarceration

Pfaff argues that prosecutors, who are often elected officials, drive up the prison population. Even as crime rates fall, prosecutors are incentivized to be tough on crime, which leads to more convicted criminals. Mandatory minimums play an indirect role. While most inmates sentenced recently are not serving mandatory minimum sentences, many of them signed plea bargains to avoid mandatory minimums by serving the sentence for a lesser charge. Also, while prosecutors receive more resources to charge alleged criminals, public defenders are spread thin as their caseloads grow, which can lead to less than favorable outcomes despite the defenders’ best efforts.

Read more by checking out Locked In if you’re interested in reversing mass incarceration. If you are facing charges, make sure you speak with an experienced defense attorney who can balance the scales stacked against you.

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