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?

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:

23 thoughts on “The truthiness of “The House I Live In””

    1. The FBI hasn’t published figures for 2011 or 2012 yet, but both the violent and property crime rates declined from 2009 to 2010. So it was working out ok as of two years ago at least.

  1. What _precisely_ is Andrew Cohen citing as fact that is fiction? Instead of a broad smear it would be helpful if I knew _specifically_ what was false.

    Perhaps you could dig out the stats and report your sources on just how many of the ONE FIFTH of the prison population jailed because of drugs are also there because of violence?

    Bonus points: Separate the conflation between those drug dealers using violence that would be eliminated with more rational drug policies (making marijuana legal eliminates violent drug dealer’s incentives to protect themselves, their product, and their turf with violence, for example) and the violence that might not be able to be eliminated from more rational drug policies.

    Note: If you look at ‘violence based criminal drug involvement’ as something that can be either eliminated or significantly mitigated by rational drug policies it puts a completely different light on the subject.

  2. Away from home this weekend, and finding it tedious trying to type on a touch-pad. So for now I’ll just concur with
    commenter R. G. Price at the linked article.

  3. “…and by no means are all of those folks non-violent.”

    Well Mark, the fact that these people have not been convicted of a violent offense means that, as far as the law is concerned, they are as non-violent as you or me. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, US jails and prisons currently hold over 400,000 prisoners whose most serious charge consists of producing, distributing, or possessing one prohibited drug or another (or conspiring to do so). Approximately what percentage of this group do you believe to be violent criminals and, if they are, why have they not been convicted of any violent offense?

    1. 1. The fact that someone’s current sentence is for drug dealing doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a prior conviction for a violent crime.
      2. Violence in the course of dealing can be treated as an aggravation of the underlying drug crime rather than as a separate offense, especially in the case of federal prosecutions, since (e.g., aggravated assault is not a federal crime).

  4. How dare Andrew Cohen, in a six-question interview, not take the time to call Eugene Jarecki on the carpet for having previously strongly implied something that may only be partially true, depending on your interpretation?

  5. The percentage of people incarcerated because of the drug war is far higher than 20 percent. It shouldn’t matter if they’re conviction is only for drugs, prohibition leads to the arrest and incarceration of plenty of people for non-drug related crimes that are committed in the service of maintaining a drug enterprise or a drug habit (i.e., murder contracts, assault, theft, possession of a handgun/firearm, extortion, etc.) If we judge the impact of the drug war on incarceration by only those convicted on a drug charge, we ignore the other criminal behaviors that occur as a result of the drug war and the prohibition of drugs, but are not simply drug dealing or possession offenses.

    1. Hear, hear. Does Mark have data here?
      If you look at crimes that are not plausibly related to drugs, the numbers seem very low. A few examples picked off the top of my head: bank robberies, 1,081 in 2011 (FBI); jewel and gem thefts, 1,481 in 2011 (trade association); corporate, securities and health care fraud, 1,371 convictions in 2011 (FBI).
      Add prostitution crimes (pimping, trafficking, soliciting) to those often connected to drugs.

  6. Ah, the Hanoi Jane trope. Anyone who points out the insanity of our invasion of Vietnam … Indeed , anyone who points out that is WAS an invasion … Needs a good smearing. All right thinking people need to support the war. Sure there’s a lot of collateral damage, but it can’t be helped.

    1. Yes indeed, collateral damage stemming from political policy seems to be something easily ignored even when it is greater than identical damage that we find appalling when it comes from other sources:

      The more remote—but more fundamental—was the unsettling sense I had upon reflecting on my feelings on the Newtown shooting. The shooting upset me (as it did many, of course). But it upset me, too, to realize that I’m not that upset more or less continuously, because in fact young kids are being shot more or less continuously—not in elementary schools in communities like Newtown, but on street corners & playgrounds in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit.

      They are essentially part of the War on Drug’s “collateral damage.” And I guess in the same way we don’t worry overmuch about “collateral damage” in the form of deaths to civilians in our other wars, we don’t really get distracted by it here at home. . . .

      So good point on the collateral damage. On the other hand, I don’t think Mark is expressing support for the war so much as support for honesty in the debate. Having said that, and without having had the opportunity to view the film at issue (it premiers in my city early next month), I thought he made a pretty weak case, particularly in his critique of Cohen’s article.

    2. “Ah, the Hanoi Jane trope. Anyone who points out the insanity of our invasion of Vietnam … Indeed , anyone who points out that is WAS an invasion … Needs a good smearing. All right thinking people need to support the war. Sure there’s a lot of collateral damage, but it can’t be helped.”

      I wondered how long it would take McArdle’s defender to assail others, suddenly having ‘standards’.

  7. And now that you mention it, if Reducing violence is the goal, we’re definitely doing it wrong, as prisons are quite violent themselves, and excellent violence amplifiers and vectors bringing great levels of violence into the communities from which the prison-eligible are drawn.

  8. So, a question: how much of “five times the OECD rate” is due to

    1. A higher crime rate, in turn divided between (a) more things somebody could be convicted of and (b) a higher actual rate for the same offenses

    2. A higher rate of convictions. This could be broken down into a higher rate of solved crimes and a higher rate of convictions for charges brought (plea bargains?), but leave that for now.

    3. Longer sentences for the same conviction. These drive the rate up even if (1) and (2) are the same (I suspect this is a large effect but that is an uninformed guess). This could be sentencing as applied at conviction, but also parole policy.

    The War on Drugs could affect 1a and 3, but not 1b–and perhaps 2, but I would think not strongly.

    Is there an easy place to find this out?

  9. “But the film strongly implies that the mass-incarceration problem consists mostly of non-violent drug dealers serving ludicrously long terms.”

    I haven’t seen the movie yet, but when the best a critic can do is say that it “strongly implies” something (rather than coming out and saying it explicitly), I have to wonder if that critic isn’t reading a message into the film that isn’t really there.

    Are there any factual problems with the “The House I Live In”? And what is your basis for saying that the film makes the implication you say it does?

  10. There’s a large difference between “arrests” and “prison time”; the above seems to blur them badly. Like mixing suicides in with murders, and mixing both in with gun accidents, it’s like a flashing caution light for propaganda.

    1. This comment is written, it seems to me, like a Republican. Offer some alternative data so that your [point becomes worth making, or address the larger issue, but don’t attempt to make discussion impossible. That’s the Karl Rove school of rhetoric.

  11. Hey Mark, you forgot to count the prisoners who are locked up because of crimes committed due to the lucrative and violent black market for drugs. The drug war’s impact on the corrections system is much greater than the number of people locked up for “drug crimes” as you count them.

  12. I HAVE seen the film, and pretty sobering it is too.

    How any country can countenance this absurdity and injustice beggars belief!
    But then in the 50’s the US was fighting wars against Godless Communism whilstlynching blacks who wanted to exercise their democratic rights. During the 2001-2007 time period, the alcohol industry gave $62.5 million to state political parties and campaigns – that still is going on – whilst “drug” users/pushers are being banged up for life, as this documentary shows.
    Leaving aside “drug related” offences, huge amounts of burglary and theft goes to support drug purchases.

    And still the politicians recite their old mantras – “war on Drugs”, 3 strikes and out, etc etc.

    View the movie. If you still think what’s happening makes any sense, God help you – no-one else is likely to be able to, sadly.

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