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The Hard Realities of Hard Time

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In the City Journal, Professor Barry Latzer reviews Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, by John F. Pfaff.

[It] is probably the best book on so-called mass incarceration to date. A professor of law at Fordham, Pfaff doesn't cherry-pick data to support some a priori theory; staying empirically grounded, he grapples directly with the data--an approach that makes his argument for reducing imprisonment a very tough sell. If violent crime and other serious offenses are the primary reasons for incarceration, then why should we reduce imprisonment?

The author's main point is that the usual explanations for the rise in imprisonment--the "standard story," as he calls it--are not only wrong but also counterproductive to de-incarceration efforts. The standard story has three components: the war on drugs, long prison sentences, and the growth of private prisons. Each of the three, Pfaff demonstrates, is a secondary contributor at best.
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Even if we grant that prisons exacerbate inmate problems, they provide advantages that should be part of any cost-benefit analysis. Pfaff gives short shrift to the benefits side of the equation. As he concedes, the best analyses indicate that, starting in the early 1990s, increased imprisonment reduced crime. Yet he downplays the costs of a post-disincarceration crime wave. These costs--the injuries and deaths due to assault; the fear engendered by unrelenting violence; the risk of ruining young lives through the temptations of gangs and drugs, to say nothing of dysfunctional schools; the depressed property values; and the discouragement to businesses, in turn creating more unemployment and greater demand on limited community services--are most likely to be borne by low-income and minority communities.

Ironically, by presenting the hard realities of imprisonment--the fundamental one being that incarceration and serious crime are closely related--Locked In weakens the case against incarceration. However unintentional, this is the book's great virtue.

1 Comment

"the best analyses indicate that, starting in the early 1990s, increased imprisonment reduced crime."

~ And in addition to hard time, communities benefited from Broken Windows enforcement.
==== Nostalgia Warning a-coming

When I visited Spanish Harlem for a wedding in 1992, I was
o- confronted by a drug pusher,
o- listened to gun shot after gun shot from my relative's apartment, &
o- witnessed gangsters or drug dealers parade up and down the block.

= 6 months later – after former US Attorney Giuliani became mayor -- the papers revealed that under Mayor Dinkins, part of the NYPD's 25th precinct was
"on the take", taking gangster bribe money with the agreement not to
patrol or to delay response. [How many people were raped or died
due to this policy?]

o- Mayor Dinkins forbade the police from evicting even the boldest
of homeless trespassers from people's doorsteps, enabling them to
urinate, accost, and degrade neighbourhoods throughout the 5 boroughs.

o- Dinkens promoted a less aggressive and more understanding police force, sought
dubious prosecutions of officers and more, all-of-which-Giuliani-reversed when
he instituted the "broken windows" policy, supported the police, and sought the banning of porn shops in Times Square.

o- Vagrant despoilers went to jail or shelter,
o- Disney, Fox, and co. moved in to Time Square [whilst Flint & co.
& the squeegee army flew out]

o- and the great decrease in NYC crime began.
====

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