The “Incarceration Nation” Narrative Is Pure Baloney

One of the most unfortunate features of the national discussion about criminal justice is that the vocabulary in which it’s conducted has been hijacked and tortured beyond recognition by the “reform” forces.  How many of their articles start out by blasting the United States as “incarceration nation” and then go on to heap yet more scorn on America, the “carcereal state”?  You can’t look through “reform” literature for five minutes without getting beaten over the head with this stuff.

Only one problem.  It’s bunk.

How do we know it’s bunk? Because one of their relatively honest components, the Vera Institute, just told us.  Hat tip to Doug Berman at Sentencing Law and Policy for posting this excerpt (emphasis added) from Vera’s report (which ironically continues, at other points, to use the very phrase its substance debunks.  Habits are hard to break!):

When the COVID-19 pandemic was first detected in the United States, it was clear that the virus would cause widespread suffering and death among incarcerated people. Advocates were quick to call for prison and jail releases. However, a little more than a year later, decarceration appears to have stalled. After an unprecedented 14 percent drop in incarceration in the first half of 2020 — from 2.1 million people to 1.8 million — incarceration declined only slightly from fall 2020 to spring 2021.

Did you spot that?  Amidst all the alarmism and hand-wringing, the report tells us that there are 1.8 million people incarcerated.  The population of the US is a bit more than 331 million.  That means that roughly one-half of one percent of the population is incarcerated.  The number not incarcerated is roughly 99.5%.  So, according to “reform” forces, when upwards of ninety-nine percent of your population is walking the streets, you’re “incarceration nation.”

Ladies and gentlemen, there’s a reason they so routinely use their catch-phrases rather than give us actual numbers.

Prof. Berman has his own take (emphasis added):

I find all this data fascinating, and I am actually encouraged that prison populations as reported by Vera is now below 1.2 million, which is the lowest it has been in over 25 years (and probably the lowest per capital in more than three decades). This Vera report is clearly eager to stress that incarceration is still “mass” in the US, but I am still eager to note that we are still generally trending in the right direction. Whether that will hold as we get closer to getting past COVID, as as murders and gun assaults are spiking, is the story I will be watching closely in the months and years ahead.

Yes, it’s all true.  The prison population is now less than it’s been since the last Millennium.  You remember  —  Bill Clinton and the blue dress and all that?  Before anyone ever heard the term “9-11”?

This is not to mention the other point “reform” forces blank on, to wit, that the best way by far to reduce the number of people incarcerated is to reduce the behavior for which incarceration is warranted  — mainly cheating, stealing, violence and dealing in hard drugs.  “Reform” forces seem to be hypnotized by the notion that the only people who need reform are us.  Thieves, thugs, and the fellows who want to sell smack to your 15 year-old  — hey, boys will be boys!