Who Belongs In Prison?
New Yorker by Adam Gopnik
April 8, 2019
Nothing has changed more in the past couple of decades than attitudes toward the crisis of incarceration in America. What was largely an invisible civilization of confinement—millions of men and women locked up for, cumulatively, millions of years—is now a commonplace concern. Everyone running for the Democratic nomination pays lip service to the need to address mass incarceration, and what were once essential political instincts—to side with the police and the prosecutors in every instance, to “get tough on crime”—have become, at the very least, negotiable. We have gone from “Lock ’em up!” to “Lock ’em up?” to “Set ’em loose!,” all in a relatively short time.
One reason for these changed attitudes is the great crime decline, a falling arc that meant that, for the first time in decades, ordinary citizens could care more about the consequences of imprisonment than they did about the threat of violent crime. Circles of compassion can grow in the absence of everyday fear: safer subways make for an expanded conscience. But there has been an ongoing argument about what, exactly, is responsible for the surge in incarceration. For a long time, the consensus blamed three-strike laws, mandatory minimum sentences, stop-and-frisk, and the rest of the oppressive apparatus of panicked anti-crime policy. Then, just two years ago, the law professor John Pfaff made the argument, persuasively, that the key factor was simply prosecutorial overreach.
There were too many prosecutors who had the astounding freedom to indict anyone more or less as they chose, and who could so overcharge the indicted that plea bargains were forced upon good and bad alike, as confessions were once forced by the Inquisition. By handing enormous discretion to prosecutors—some of them, by the standards of the rest of the world, properly described as politicians, elected to their office and sensitive to voters’ needs, including a metric of success linked to putting people in jail—we had given them the freedom to imprison whomever they wished for as long as they liked. All but about five per cent of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains, and never go to trial. In the vast majority of cases, Pfaff observed, in his book “Locked In,” inmates ended up behind bars “by signing a piece of paper in a dingy conference room in a county office building.” After 1990, as the crime rate began to fall, the number of line prosecutors soared, and so did the number of the incarcerated. Fewer offenses, more designated offenders.
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