After President Biden pardoned Americans convicted of federal marijuana possession last week, reform advocates praised his action as a “historic” step away from mass incarceration, while critics lamented it as another blow to public safety. The truth is somewhat less momentous: the pardons affect only about 6,500 people, none of whom is currently in prison, and drug crimes account for only a small portion of America’s prison population.
The extreme reactions on both sides are consistent with the public’s warped perceptions of the effects of drug enforcement on our criminal-justice system, which activists and the media have propagated through books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and documentaries like 13th. This component of the prison-reform narrative is disingenuous and distracts from the more pressing work of finding solutions to violent crime.
Of the approximately 145,000 people in federal prisons and 1,040,000 people in state prisons, less than 3.5 percent are incarcerated for a conviction related to drug possession. Even when one expands the scope beyond mere possession to all other types of drug offenses (many of which are associated with violent cartels and gangs), the proportion rises only to 18 percent.
The hard truth for criminal-justice reformers is that violent offenses are far more prevalent among America’s prisoners. At the state level—where nine in ten prisoners are incarcerated—almost 60 percent of inmates committed violent crimes. Roughly 143,000 people are imprisoned for convictions related to sexual assault and 155,000 for homicide, compared with 146,000 for all drug crimes combined. The idea that America’s “mass” incarceration is a result of drug crimes is absurd.
America’s incarceration “problem” relates directly to its violent-crime problem. The nation’s incarceration rate—roughly 639 per 100,000 people—is four to six times that of its high-income peers in Europe and Asia. Without context, that statistic is alarming, but when we consider that America’s homicide rate is 7.5 times higher than those same peer nations, our incarceration rate seems more justified.
Even the claim that people imprisoned for “nonviolent” crimes are distinct from the rest of the criminal population is suspect. A 2021 Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that people released from prison for drug crimes were actually more likely to be re-arrested for a violent offense than people released for homicide or sexual assault.
My intent in presenting these sobering statistics is not to discourage reform. To the contrary, the dismal performance of our correctional institutions based on metrics like return-to-prison rates, post-release employment, and prisoner and officer health should all energize a commitment to reform. But conversations about how to change the criminal-justice system must be based in reality.
As a starting place, reformers need to stop deluding themselves and the public that “mass decarceration” will be anything other than a bloodbath. We should accept that prison is necessary for public safety and focus on transforming prisons into more effective institutions. Prisons should be centers of intervention and opportunity that equip inmates with the social and professional skills to lead productive, peaceful lives when they return to society. Prisons should develop rehabilitation programs that target anti-social behavior at the root of violent crime and, most importantly, be held accountable for failing to achieve positive outcomes. Prisons should be well-staffed, and correctional officers should be rewarded for making a difference in the lives of the people with whom they work. States around the country have achieved impressive results by funding probation and parole departments based on successful outcomes; the same concept should apply to prisons.
In an era of rising violent crime and increased attention to public safety, the reform movement will not survive unless it admits that the reality of the criminal-justice system is far more complex than the activists’ refrains suggest. Most importantly, reformers’ priorities need to account for violent crime and create workable solutions for making prisons better, rather than continuing to indulge the dangerous fantasy of abolition.