There is a lot of talk that too many people in the U.S. are in prison, especially members of a minority, and that they are there mostly because of flaws in our society–racism generally being cited as the relevant flaw.
Heather Mac Donald debunks this notion in her new book The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. National Review prints an excerpt from the book, and I urge you to read it (or better still, buy the book).
Mac Donald calls the idea that African Americans are disproportionately in prison because of the war on drugs "spurious" and refutes the claim that putting people in prison actually increases crime in their neighborhoods.
This idea is advanced by, among many others, Columbia University Law professor Jeff Fagan, who insists that sending men to prison “weakens the general social control of children and especially adolescents.” To which Mac Donald replies:
A few questions present themselves. How many convicts were living in a stable relationship with the mother (or one of the mothers) of their children before being sent upstate? (Forget even asking about their marriage rate.)
What kind of positive guidance for young people comes from men who are committing enough crimes to end up in prison, rather than on probation (an exceedingly high threshold)? Further, if Fagan is right that keeping criminals out of prison and on the streets preserves a community’s social capital, inner cities should have thrived during the 1960s and early 1970s, when prison resources contracted sharply. In fact, New York’s poorest neighborhoods — the subject of Fagan’s analysis — turned around only in the 1990s, when the prison population reached its zenith.
Fagan and others believe that if you live in a high-crime neighborhood, you almost have no choice. You will commit crimes. Individual choices are downplayed:
[F]or all the popularity of the view that the system is to blame, it’s not hard to find dissenters who believe that individuals are responsible for the decision to break the law. “My position is not hard,” says public-housing manager Matthew Kennedy. “You don’t have to do that crime.” Kennedy supported President Bill Clinton’s controversial 1996 “one-strike” rule for public housing, which allowed housing authorities to evict drug dealers and other lawbreaking tenants on their first offense. “I’m trying to protect the good people in my community,” Kennedy explains. “A criminal record is preventable. It’s all on you.”
Kennedy has no truck with the argument that it is unfair to send ex-offenders back to prison for violations of their parole conditions, such as staying away from their gang associates and hangouts. “Where do they take responsibility for their own actions?” he wonders. “You’ve been told, ‘Don’t come back to this community.’ Why would you come back here? You’ve got to change your ways, change the habits that got you in there in the first place.”
As is often the case with progressive causes, being anti-incarceration may feel good and compassionate. But mostly for people who dwell in ivory towers or gated communities:
Though you’d never know it from reading the academic literature, some people in minority communities even see prison as potentially positive for individuals as well as for communities. “I don’t buy the idea that there’s no sense to prison,” says Clyde Fulford, a 54-year-old lifelong resident of the William Mead Homes, a downtown Los Angeles housing project.
Having raised his children to be hardworking, law-abiding citizens, Fulford is a real role model for his neighborhood, not the specious drug-dealing kind posited by the “social ecological” theory of incarceration. “I know a lot of people who went to prison,” Fulford says. “A lot changed they life for the better. Prison was they wake-up call.” Is prison unavoidable and thus unfair? “They knew they was going to pay. It’s up to that person.” What if the prisoners hadn’t been locked up? “Many would be six feet under.”
We actually live in a society in which the elites can't see that sending criminals to jail is both just and salubrious to the commonweal.