If Only President Obama Would Do Something About The Prison Population

Adam Gopnik’s moral outrage about the shameful level of incarceration in the U.S. is right on target. However, the analysis in his New Yorker article is weak in multiple places, most notably in missing the biggest story going in incarceration these days.

At the time President Obama was elected, the incarcerated population in the U.S. had risen every single year since the Bureau of Justice Statistics began keeping records in 1980. Given the self-sustaining force of that historical trend, turning it around would be a herculean feat for a president, particularly because most incarceration happens at the state level.

The president’s administration would have to roll back the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity and end “drug war” rhetoric, creating change at the federal level and also inspiring individual states to re-evaluate their drug sentencing guidelines. The Administration would also have to invest in re-entry programs and highlight more effective methods of parole and probation. Marijuana possession cases make far less contribution to incarceration than Gopnik asserts in his article, but some marginal reductions in the number of people under criminal supervision could come from a White House reversing past practice and not opposing state-level marijuana decriminalization laws in places such as California and Massachusetts.

If only a president would do all that, maybe year 1 of his administration would witness the first decline in the number of people under criminal supervision, followed in year 2 by the first decline in the size of the prison population since records began being kept nearly 30 years ago.

If only President Obama would make all that happen. Oh wait, he did.

Does giving President Obama credit violate New Yorker house style or something?


  1. says

    Shhhh. Not so loud. Don’t you want Obama to be re-elected?

    And on a tangential matter, Peter Moskos thinks that Gopnik borrowed quite a bit from his recent book In Defense of Flogging, including analogies and metaphors, without attribution. Peter is not happy about it. See his blog for the full indictment

  2. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    Obama has been far more sane about incarceration-related stuff than his predecessors. But credit for the decrease in prison population goes more to our Lesser Depression than to any Obama-induced fit of sanity. I think that hangee-burnee-floggee rhetoric is as prevalent as ever. But locals pols must balance their budget, even on the back of hangee-burnee-floggee.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      Ebenezer, we have had multiple recessions over the past 35 years, and the prison population went up in every one of them.

  3. says


    How did the promises in the links of new policies actually translate into the stats offered at the end of the article? I don’t see whether these proposals ever were put into practice. And I note the following in one of the last links you cited that prison population peeked in 2007 and started declining consistently since 2008.

    I too would like to give Obama credit for something, but I am concerned that not even here can we give him much credit…

  4. c23c says

    Reducing the prison population means letting criminals out of prison and into society. Better be careful to do it right, or it will cause a crime wave, and Democrats will rightly take the blame.

    • John G says

      but what’s a ‘crime wave’ for low-violence, low-victim offences? A few more people smoking dope? Pretty well every person behind bars will eventually get out. So transition programs are crucial – but they should start no later than they have to in order to protect the population (and suitably punish the criminal): so shorter sentences for less serious offences, and no prison for non-serious offences, and a better appreciation of what’s serious, will all contribute to reduction of prison population, which has a whole lot of measurable and hard-to-measure benefits to society.

      The best deterrent to crime is certainty rather than severity of punishment. No doubt the bankers as well as the drug dealers have noticed that.

      • c23c says

        >but what’s a ‘crime wave’ for low-violence, low-victim offences? A few more people smoking dope?

        The post specifically mentioned reducing the penalty disparity between powdered cocaine and crack cocaine. Translation: Keith Humphreys thinks we have too many crackheads in prison and not enough out on the streets. If crackheads committed no crimes other than smoking crack, that wouldn’t be a problem.

        >The best deterrent to crime is certainty rather than severity of punishment.

        If it’s properly implemented, it could work. Like I said, better be careful to do it right.

        • StevenB says

          Apparently you do not not use or know the language, as your ‘translation’ skills desire much. The sentencing disparity regarding cocaine is and always has been a racial and class issue, with low level and largely non-white crack users being given much more punishing sentences than large scale and largely white users and dealers of large amount of powder cocaine. To ‘translate’ this into a thinly veiled threat that bringing equity to cocaine sentencing guidelines will result in a crack addled African American crime wave is not up to the standards of this blog. I work in substance abuse treatment, as does Mr. Humphreys, and I can tell you that the most effective strategy for managing crack or powder cocaine use use is effective treatment, not cheap ideological distortion. I strongly suggest you read Mark Kleinman’s “When Brute Force Fails” for an excellent introduction to what actually works in terms of criminal sanctions – the best deterrent, regardless of distorting preconceptions, is certainty.

          • c23c says

            It seems to me that reducing sentencing disparity = lighter sentences for crack cocaine offenses = more crackheads out on the street. If any step in this chain of reasoning is wrong, please explain how. i don’t think you can, which is why your “rebuttal” amounts to a call for the moderators to ban me, instead of showing how I’m wrong.

            If your substance abuse treatment is a good as you think it is, then there’s nothing to worry about. I’m skeptical, but the proof is in the crimewave (or lack thereof).

    • MobiusKlein says

      Reducing prison population will also have some felons get out and not commit crimes too. Their freedom and liberty should matter as well.

        • StevenB says

          I’m going to suggest that you have nothing of substance to contribute to this forum. You’re a troll, looking to derail substantive discussion of the issue. I’m encouraging the RBC moderators to assess your willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue.

        • MobiusKlein says

          You should not base your morality on what sells on the campaign trail.
          Other countries have managed their crime with fewer per capita in jail. If we could do likewise, it would be a boon for actual Liberty of real people. While some libertarians rail about the tyranny of taxes, real Libertarians want a world with more freedom. (and real Liberals too.)

          Sending people to jail to rot should be a last resort.

  5. says

    “Marijuana possession cases make far less contribution to incarceration than Gopnik asserts in his article”

    Out of curiosity, does the number you’re looking at include incarcerations resulting from parole violations where the original contact with the courts was for a marijuana offense? I would assume that the vast majority of marijuana cases do not land people in jails for a long time, but subsequent contact with police and courts would create an outsized effect on incarceration. I imagine this could become difficult to investigate.


    • Keith Humphreys says

      Ben: That is exactly what I was thinking of. Simple MJ possession will not land anyone outside the system in a state or federal prison –it’s very hard to get even one night in jail (IIRC Peter Reuter estimates that there is one MJ arrest for every 10,000 joints smoked in the US and one incarceration for every 3 million joints smoked in the US). Federal prosecutors will not even take a case these days for MJ unless someone has 10-1000 pounds of MJ. But if you are in the criminal justice system already, e.g., on parole/probation, MJ puts you at more risk of getting put back inside, depending on what your PO drug tests for and how s/he reacts to a positive test.

      • says

        This is an area where discretion at all levels of the criminal justice system can create racially disproportionate outcomes. I believe that most analyses of race and drug crime enforcement stop at the street level; there’s a lot of focus on New York City’s annual stop-and-frisk numbers, but not a lot of focus to decisions that prosecutors, judges, and POs make with the individuals before them. Each level of them has a fair amount of discretion.

        I speculate that there’s a situation analogous to bio-accumulation of toxins in a food chain. As an individual is passed through the layers of the criminal justice system from police to prosecutor, judge, PO, and then subsequent contacts with, the person is at risk of being tainted with animus. Earlier contacts in the chain have much more leeway, and certainly could exclude them from the system entirely (giving a warning, for instance). Even a rare and small racial animus effect would then be magnified, if at each level, there’s a remote but real chance that they’ll be at the mercy of additional unfair treatment. Once a case is tainted, there’s not much we could do to erase the effect. So the more contacts a person has with the criminal justice system, it may also be fair to say that the more they are at risk of being discriminated against.

        Now I’m off topic.

  6. Bruce says

    I’d have to give an “Amen” to the Scrooge’s take. California’s prison population is falling for the first time ever because the state finally exhausted its appeals of the order to cut the prison population, even as it simultaneously has a budget crisis.

    One could just as easily give Obama credit for the shrinking in the numbers of state and municipal workers. Is he out to shrink the staffing of America’s fire departments? No, but that too has happened as surely as the prison population has started to shrink — and for largely the same reasons.

    As for its decision not to oppose state-level decriminalization (a policy on which the administration has sent decidedly mixed signals), I’d be curious if pressure from the feds has ever changed a state policy in that regards. I wouldn’t be surprised if it has, but I’d be curious about the mechanism.

    • Keith Humphreys says

      a policy on which the administration has sent decidedly mixed signals

      Prove it. Quote one example of an Obama Administration official speaking out against state-level MJ decriminalization (legalization yes, but decriminalization, don’t think you will find a one – but prove me wrong maybe I missed something).

      • Bruce Ross says

        Dr. Humphreys, you’re in California, yes?

        In 2009 DOJ memo that said it was not an effective use of federal resources to prosecute medical-marijuana patients and growers in compliance with state law (with many caveats).

        In 2011, the same DOJ was threatening local government officials with prosecution for trying to permit and regulate growing and distribution within their jurisdictions, and specifically targeting growers who’d gone the furthest to cooperate with local authorities. (I’m thinking of Mendocino County, in particular.)

        Sorry, but even accepting your nuance about legalization and decriminalization, that’s a mixed message. Announcing a change in policy and standing by idly while hundreds of marijuana shops open under the guise of Prop. 215, only to crack down two years later, is a mixed message. Letting local governments spend the many hours and dollars it takes to establish local permitting schemes only to come around two years later and threaten prosecution is a mixed message.

        That good enough for you?

        In all fairness to the DOJ, perhaps they didn’t expect things to get as out of hand as they got and a backlash was probably inevitable. But if the Obama administration has a consistent message, nobody outside of the administration seems able to understand it.

        • Keith Humphreys says

          You are mixing two different policies, it’s not nuance, they are completely different in terms of suppliers, price, consequences for users and police conduct. And California is the perfect example of how the administration approached each of this different policies differently– decriminalization of possession of one ounce of pot occurred during the whole medical marijuana debate and not one word of criticism was uttered by the Obama Administration.