On mass incarceration, BS from B.S.

Political candidates make statements that do not closely track the facts. That’s a given. Sometimes it’s just fluff and spin: not creditable, but not a mortal sin, either.

Sometimes, however, a candidate makes a statement suggesting that the candidate is either being deliberately deceptive on a matter of importance or simply has no idea what he or she is talking about.

Consider, for example, this from Bernie Sanders:

… at the end of my first term, we will not have more people in jail than any other country.

That’s a very specific promise, with a timeline attached. And it is a promise that no President has the power to fulfill.

If we elide the distinction between prisons (holding people convicted of serious crimes) and jails (holding people convicted of minor crimes and people awaiting trial), it is true and important that the U.S. leads the world in incarceration. That’s a disgrace. (I seem to recall having written a book on the topic.)

We should do something about that, and there are things to do about it. A President can do some of them.

But of the 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, fewer than 10% are Federal prisoners. The rest are in state prisons and local jails. If the President were to release all of the Federal prisoners, we would still, as a country, have more prisoners than any other country. So Sen. Sanders was very specifically making a promise he has no way of keeping. Either he knows that or he does not.

And his promise to accomplish it with “education and jobs” utterly misunderstands the short-term relationships between schooling and employment on the one hand and crime and incarceration on the other.

So it sounds as if Sen. Sanders, after several decades in public office, is either utterly unserious or utterly clueless about the crime issue. Again, that’s excusable. But since he also seems to know very little about foreign policy, and much of what he thinks he knows about health care is just plain wrong, someone might want to start asking what it is he does know about, other than how to get a crowd riled up by denouncing the banksters.

Those of us supporting Hillary Clinton this year are sometimes accused of wanting to settle for political small-ball rather than sweeping change. But no matter how good Sen. Sanders’s intentions may be, he’s not going to be able to change very much for the better unless he’s willing to learn something about the way the world, and the political system, actually operate.

Learning requires both humility – the knowledge of what one does not now know – and curiosity. Sen. Sanders’s passionate conviction that he already knows the truth, and that anyone who disagrees with him must be in the pay of special interests, does not suggest that he numbers either humility or curiosity among his many virtues.




Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

17 thoughts on “On mass incarceration, BS from B.S.”

  1. On climate and energy – the area I know best – Sanders' plan adds up but is still quite unrealistic. Its core is a carbon tax, requiring a Democratic majority of both houses of Congress, without the Blue Dogs who IIRC killed cap-and-trade when Obama had one. Hillary's plan is an extension of Obama's regulatory approach, though it also includes new spending that would be watered down at best by a Republican House. A Clintonite optimist could make a case that the political tide may have shifted enough in favour of renewable energy on Republican benches to make the issue less toxic, witness the surprising multiyear extension of the wind and solar tax breaks in the last budget compromise.

    The one country that introduced a carbon tax, Australia, rolled it back. Europe has high gasoline and diesel taxes, but no plans to extend them to heating oil, gas or coal. The countries and regions that have made most progress towards the energy transition rely either on geophysical luck (Iceland, Norway, Costa Rica, Bhutan) or a kludgy mixture of targeted subsidies, tax breaks, price guarantees like FITs and net metering, and efficiency regulations (Germany, Denmark, Italy, China, Brazil, India, California). Even the apparent no-brainer of ending fossil fuel subsidies is politically very difficult everywhere.

    For me, one major problem with Sanders is that his priority for health care reform is simply mistimed. ACA hasn't bedded in yet, with incomplete Medicaid expansion. Democratic candidates should have a vision for the path forward towards truly comprehensive coverage, but the next big push should be in ten years' time. Climate change is an immediate problem, with the Paris Agreement coming into force and the sabotage of the CPP by the Republicans on SCOTUS. Criminal justice is another issue for the next Presidency.

    1. "without the Blue Dogs who IIRC killed cap-and-trade when Obama had one"

      Well yes, but I'll nitpick that the Repubs get primary blame. When Ds split 90-10 one way and the Rs 10-90 the other, we can't forget who deserves the primary blame.

      Some regions have done something with a carbon tax, like Alberta and British Columbia. The Washington State effort looks like it's going to go down in flames, sadly. People just don't want to do something so transparent so far, but maybe at some point it'll break through. My favorite would be a tax break that applies in places with a VAT tax, so it looks like you're giving a tax break to non-carbon sources rather than taxing carbon, but the effect would be the same.

  2. This is mighty thin gruel against Sanders. And you are stretching credulity with:

    "So it sounds as if Sen. Sanders, after several decades in public office, is either utterly unserious or utterly clueless about the crime issue. Again, that’s excusable. But since he also seems to know very little about foreign policy, and much of what he thinks he knows about health care is just plain wrong, someone might want to start asking what it is he does know about…"

    You might want to dial the rhetoric back a couple of notches.

  3. I might be worried if I thought he meant to include state prisons, over which he would have no control. It's not clear to me what he meant, and as you say the game mostly isn't federal, and this is I assume far down his list of issues, so it doesn't bother me much. Also, there is probably an explanation you just haven't heard yet.

    Otoh, if it were meant to bamboozle minority voters, that would bother me — but, that doesn't seem his style.

    Meanwhile, I refuse to get dragged down by the Hillary-Sanders match. They shouldn't get negative. Just let the voters get a clear choice.

    From what I hear her saying, all that foreign policy experience hasn't made her thinking any more clear. My standard here is low – will the candidate start a completely unnecessary war of choice, launched without any imminent threat, in a conflicted area where we don't even speak the language, for no good reason? No? Great! I'll take *that deal.* Either of them is fine.

    Domestically nothing's going to happen and we all know it. So the Bernie panic isn't working.

    1. "Otoh, if it were meant to bamboozle minority voters, that would bother me — but, that doesn't seem his style."

      No, I think he means to bamboozle every type of voter, without regard to race, gender, or ethnicity.

      Look, the guy is a red diaper baby, grew up among genuine Stalinists, has expressed his admiration for such champions of democracy as Fidel Castrol and Daniel Ortega.

      I think Mark wrongs Sanders. Sanders knows quite a bit about the way the world, and the political system, operate. And one of the things he knows is that you don't have to be able to deliver on promises, to politically benefit from making them. You don't have to tell people the truth about what you mean to do with power, to obtain it.

      I think Sanders is a lot more cynical than Mark assumes he is. Dangerously so. He's not your harmless, eccentric uncle.

      Frankly, while I loath Hillary, Bernie scares me.

      1. Well I am not seeing the cynicism that you do. And if someone in a long public career has at times admired the wrong people before he got to know them, that's no surprise either. I'm sure we could take any pol, and look at every word that came out of their mouth over decades and find whoppers. The only way that wouldn't be true would be if they had no thoughts or opinions… and then they'd be useless. If I get a chance I'll try to look up what he said.

        Don't be afraid of Sanders. I think he's who he says he is. And if not… we'll find out soon. Plus, again… nothing will get done. (Even if it did … I do not think he would be reckless. I know you will probably disagree though.)

  4. Meanwhile. I still think a single payer is worth a try and we shouldn't wait 10 years. Now, to what extent might state attempts be made easier with a friend in the White House? I am not near wonky enough to know. Heck – I'd like to see LA *County* try it, even. Am I crazy? A voluntary, simplified system? People wouldn't stampede? I bet some doctors would, at this point.

    We are looking down a barrel of some extended ugliness with these costs, with what? a quarter to a third being a waste? (Though I'm not sure that economists recognize the concept of waste? I'll have to google that.) But it seems like something worth trying before we rip away the last shreds of retirement security from people.

    Ah, also. Is it true that Medicare doesn't cover hearing aids? Wt foxtrot? While we hemorrhage money abroad, with little return. Unbelievable that we can't do better.

  5. So…what does Secretary Clinton have to say about the 22 Republican Senators from the South who would not have been elected if black men in their states were allowed to vote, after having paid their prison debt to society? If you look at the stats for voting rates among black ex-cons, then Mitch McConnell would never have been elected over the past four terms. Where is Clinton on restoring voting rights to ex-cons, the current version of Jim Crow? Where is she on unpaid prison labor and the high-school-to-prison pipeline? I've heard nothing but crickets, and a vague schmoozy reassurance that she and her husband like black folk better than Bernie does, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    I've got my reservations about Bernie too, though i agree with the commenter above that Clinton's foreign policy has been an unmitigated disaster, so he could hardly do worse. But how have she and her husband dealt with incarceration, other than to say stop supporting poor black people economically and lock 'em all up????

      1. Meh. If you're arguing against me, then general equilibrium models tend to affirm the consequent. So you'll have to come up with some actual counter-arguments, not a toss-away Thomas Aquinas Lite aphorism. If you're saying that my argument is against people who assume the fallacy of composition, well, maybe or maybe not. Those are just fancy words. Twisting common sense into medieval scholastic arcana is child's play, and the only difference between Libertarians and the Klan or the Christo-fascist Dixie Prayer Room Propagandists is that the former know some fancy three-dollar words to obfuscate what they really want, which is no taxes ever, lots of guns to protect them from brown people, and no brown people in their neighborhoods.

        So again, without some contrived catch-phrase, explain to me exactly how Hillary would in a thousand lifetimes do more to reduce the incarceration of POCs than Bernie would. Explain.

        I can't see a single shred of real-world evidence, fancy logic terms aside, that Hillary or her husband have ever done anything but impoverish and imprison more black people than any Democrats before them. So c'mon, smart guy, fork over the evidence!

        1. This is… quite a comment. The point is that if all those ex-cons were able to vote, politicians would have taken account of the differing composition of the electorate, not just ran exactly the same campaigns and get crushed. (I also have some doubts about how many ex-con voters there actually are, relative to the victory margins of those 22 Senators, even making the naive partial equilibrium analysis I have a hard time believing it'd make nearly such a difference.)

  6. Goose and gander, Mark. Hillary didn't distinguish state from federal penal systems, either.

    If you wanna play "gotcha," I can play "gotcha" right back.

    I'll start with the fact that, if it's ending or modifying the WOD vs. being an establishmentarianism, you've now shown where you butter your bread. It's with the "super-predator" fears. And you know what I'm talking about.

    I'm like the 91 percent of New Hampshire Democratic voters who voted based on valuing integrity.

  7. Careful, Mark — any time anyone posts anything negative about Sanders, his supporters come out of the woodwork to bash Hillary.

    It's going to be a long year.

  8. I may be wrong, but I seem to recall that the Federal Government conditioned Federal Dollars to States on the States making prisoners serve 85% of their sentences. Maybe you know the details on that. If that is true, perhaps Senator Sanders could influence states to reduce their mass incarceration by changing this condition? He also has the bully pulpit and the Dept of Justice? California has been required by the Courts to reduce their population based on lawsuits. Of course, I recognize that litigation takes time, but there are settlements where saving money for strapped states is involved? Hey, we are already on the way to changing the life without parole sentences of people who were sentenced for crimes committed when they were juveniles with the latest Supreme court case on Retroactivity. That is close to 500 in Pennsylvania. Maybe a drop in the bucket, but a start. In addition, lots of people are locked up for long periods of time because they cannot make bail. That could also be influenced…. Hey, the optimists are now hoping for a new dawn with a new majority in the Supreme Court. I don't have the figures to know if this would add up, but I don't think that substantial steps are not possible.

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