If Fuller Prisons Don’t Reduce Crime, What Are Tough Drug Laws Really Targeting?

Or: Why American prison policy is the new slavery.


A couple of quotes for you to ponder:

“If we had the same laws we had in 1979 on the books today, our prison population would be 80 percent lower.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was a deliberate attempt to re-enslave us.”

The first of these came from The Rev. W. Wilson Goode Sr., who has found a second career outside politics running a program that seeks to fix a problem stemming from our policy of mass incarceration, which is what the second quote refers to.

That second quote is from me. I said it to several African-American friends of mine one recent Friday as we were discussing mass incarceration.

Our bursting-at-the-seams “prison-industrial complex” is the product of laws enacted since the early 1980s. Many of these laws were aimed at stopping the flow of illegal drugs through our communities, but a number of them were designed to cut down on recidivism and keep repeat offenders off the streets.

They were sold as a way to push skyrocketing crime rates down. Now, about 30 years after the first of these laws was passed, we know that they have failed to do that. What they have done instead is sever family ties among our most vulnerable citizens and disproportionately harm black communities that need men in them as role models for young boys.

Several studies over the past few years have shown that, contrary to what proponents assume, shipping young men–in particular, young African-American men, who make up the overhwelming bulk of those incarcerated–off to prison wholesale has not only not driven crime down, but it may have made it worse.

One of the most widely publicized such studies was released in 2005 by The Sentencing Project. It surveyed incarceration and crime rate data from all 50 states and the District of Columbia and found a reverse correlation between the increase in incarceration rates and the decrease in crime rates from 1991 to 1998: Those states that had lower growth in their prison populations since 1991 had a greater drop in crime than those that had higher growth. From 1998 to 2003, the latest year for which figures were available, crime rates fell equally in the 12 states that did not send more people to prison each year and the 38 states that did.

The Sentencing Project noted that it could not determine what effect tough sentencing laws meant to root out drug crime had on either overall or drug-related crimes. A 2012 study by Geert Dhondt of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York did that by focusing on convictions under laws setting mandatory minimum sentences for possession of cocaine and marijuana. That study measured the marginal effect of increased incarceration on crime: It found that for each 1-percentage-point increase in the prison population, crime rates went up by 0.28 percent for violent crimes and 0.17 percent for property crimes.

So why would this constitute re-enslavement? In part because of who gets busted for drug crimes.

Drug crimes are just about the textbook definition of “victimless,” as they usually involve transactions between willing sellers and willing buyers. While there are no scientific studies I know of that show this, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to the effect that buyers travel from neighborhoods far away from where they live to score drugs at known “drug corners.” Those tough sentences may have helped shut a lot of those corners down, but they did so mainly by locking up the sellers and leaving the buyers free to go their merry way. I don’t think I need to provide you with a demographic breakdown of the two groups.

And so we have come to this sad pass: Communities where black men are needed to play the roles of father and mentor are stripped of too many of them, leaving children adrift. Programs like Amachi, which Goode runs, seek to fill that hole. But wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t need them to begin with?

And all of this is the result of fear-based crime policy. Fear of what, I’ll leave it up to you to figure out.

Veteran reporter-editor Sandy Smith has been scribbling away since his youth, when The Kansas City Star hired him as a summer reporting intern  out of high school. Part of the team that launched an award-winning newspaper at Penn and founder of another  at Widener University, he is currently editor-in-chief of the Philadelphia Real Estate Blog and contributes to Philadelphia magazine’s Property blog as well as other local publications.