Reformers are famously prey to the fanaticism of reform. A sense of indignation and a good cause lead first to moral urgency, and then soon afterward to repetition, whereby the reformers become captive to their own rhetoric, usually at a cost to their cause. Crusaders against widespread alcoholism (as acute a problem in 1910 as the opioid epidemic is today) advanced to the folly of Prohibition, which created a set of organized-crime institutions whose effects have scarcely just passed. Progressive Era trade unionists, fending off corporate thugs, could steer into thuggish forms of Stalinism. Those with the moral courage to protest the Vietnam War sometimes became blinded to the reality of the North Vietnamese government—and on and on. It seems fair to say that a readiness to amend and reconsider the case being made is exactly what separates a genuine reforming instinct from a merely self-righteous one.
The fight against mass incarceration in the United States is no exception to this rule. In recent years, the horror of what Americans have done to other Americans—and particularly white Americans to black Americans—has led to a steady, engaged anti-prison polemic, one with many authors singing more or less in unison. The numbers make their own case: 6.7 million people, mostly men, were under correctional supervision during the year 2015—more than were enslaved in antebellum America and more than resided in the Gulag Archipelago at the height of Stalin’s misrule.
In a new book, “Locked In” (Basic), John F. Pfaff, a professor of law at Fordham, calls this choired voice (in which this writer has been a participant) “the Standard Story.” The standard story, as he sees it, insists that, first, the root cause of incarceration is the racist persecution of young black men for drug crimes, which overpopulates the prisons with nonviolent offenders. Then mandatory-sentencing laws leave offenders serving long prison sentences for relatively minor crimes. This hugely expanded prison population, one that tracks in reverse the decline of actual crime, has led to a commerce in caged men—private-prison contractors, and a specialized lobby in favor of prison construction, which in turn demands men to feed into the system. (This exploitation is further supported by local communities in which a new prison can replace a closing factory, providing one of the few reliable sources of decent incomes for working-class, mostly white men.)
Read more at The New Yorker.