The truthiness of “The House I Live In”

I saw a screening of the anti-incarceration documentary The House I Live In some months ago. The film is right that prisons are horrible places and that we have vastly too many people in them. And it’s right that the “war on drugs” causes untold needless suffering. But the film strongly implies that the mass-incarceration problem consists mostly of non-violent drug dealers serving ludicrously long terms. False.

In fact, only about 20% of U.S. incarceration is on drug charges, and by no means are all of those folks non-violent. That’s still way too many drug prisoners; have drugs-only incarceration rate higher than the total incarceration rate of anyplace we’d like to compare ourselves with. But if we let them tomorrow, we’d still have four times our historical incarceration rate and four times the incarceration rate of any other OECD country, instead of five times.

If I were in the fact-checking business, I’d call The House I Live In “partly true” or “half true” or maybe “mostly false.” But I’m not, so I’ll just call it a tedious and emotionally manipulative propaganda exercise, none the better morally for being excellent technically.

I don’t blame the filmmaker (much) for not knowing the facts or not bothering to find out. But what’s Andrew Cohen’s excuse for treating fiction as fact?