Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Annals of derp: What goes up, etc.

James McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1872-77). Via JSS Gallery.

It's world-famous penitentiarist David Brooks out to stop all this nonsense he sees in the presidential campaign about ending the drug war as a way to deal with the problem of prison overcrowding:
The drug war is not even close to being the primary driver behind the sharp rise in incarceration. About 90 percent of America’s prisoners are held in state institutions. Only 17 percent of these inmates are in for a drug-related offense, or less than one in five.

Moreover, the share of people imprisoned for drug offenses is dropping sharply, down by 22 percent between 2006 and 2011. Writing in Slate, Leon Neyfakh emphasized that if you released every drug offender from state prison today, you’d reduce the population only to 1.2 million from 1.5 million.

The war on drugs does not explain the rocketing rates of incarceration, and ending that war, wise or not, will not solve this problem.
I think that the main thing Brooks is missing here is that the incarceration rates are not, in point of fact, rocketing, unless you're thinking about the way typical rockets, the ones that don't escape into space, take a parabolic trajectory in which after going up they go down, because US state incarceration rates have been going down for the past five years, since the annual number of admissions started declining around 2006, which is a good thing. That's not the problem our Democratic candidates are addressing.

Image via The Sentencing Project.
Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is the source Brooks actually cites!

The reason there are relatively few drug and other nonviolent offenders in state prisons now is that that's who's getting let out, along with other initiatives ranging from total decriminalization of marijuana use as in Colorado and Oregon to cops looking the other way, or efforts in the case of dangerous drugs like heroin and meth to opt for treatment instead of jail.

California, for example, has brought its prison population down from 163,000 in 2006 to 112,300 in spring 2015, following a Supreme Court order of 2009, as the result of deliberate policy:
Most far-reaching has been a policy known as public safety realignment, which transferred authority for many non-serious, non-violent, and non-sexual offenders from the state to the counties and prevented counties from returning parole violators to prison. Earlier legislation encouraged counties to reduce the number of felony probationers who are sent back to state prison. Proposition 47, passed in November 2014, reclassifies some drug and property offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies.
You can find similar developments in Colorado, Texas (no thanks to Rick Perry), New York and New Jersey (where the trend is directly correlated to the decreasing crime rate), and all sorts of places. It's not happening everywhere, but it's happening in a number of big states, not just blue ones, and that's driving the nationwide numbers down. The war on drugs did drive the rocketing incarceration rates back when they were rocketing, and now the rates are starting to fall because the drug war has been winding down.

In short, if Brooks thinks he has an argument here, it's because he has no clue what's been going on. The policies Brooks tells us there's no reason to adopt at some point in the future are already in place and working, and that's why the problem isn't so bad. Or suspended in some kind of temporal plasma where cause and effect just float by one another without making contact. Retroactionary idiot.

Unfortunately, the process is still moving slowly, and there's one incarceration problem in the US that is not getting significantly better at all, the one that's driving the current discussion, at least in the Democratic party, and one that he does not advert to at all in his fatuous column (I mean seriously, not a single relevant word): the increasing racialization of the prison system.

As Hillary Clinton said in her big speech at the Dinkins Forum at Columbia University in April,
"We have to come to terms with some hard truths about race and justice in America... There is something profoundly wrong when African American men are still far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than are meted out to their white counterparts. There is something wrong when a third of all black men face the prospect of prison at some point during their lifetimes."
"We have allowed our criminal justice system to get out of balance, and these recent tragedies should galvanize us to come together as a nation to find our balance again." 
And to quote Bernie Sanders,
It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy. This must change.
If current trends continue, one in four black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime. Blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites and a report by the Department of Justice found that blacks were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, compared to white motorists. African-Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police. This is an unspeakable tragedy.
I'd quote some Republicans too, if I heard any Republicans mentioning it, other than hipstertarian Rand Paul, who does love him some liberty as long as it's not for women (Update: Via Steve M, Rubio has taken to noticing racial injustice too, and doing it somewhat persuasively; I may have to acknowledge some decency in that character, though I'm not ready to do it yet). Brooks can't even use the word "race" or "black" (except in remarking that "the prosecutorial world is largely a black box", by which he does not mean it's about putting people of color in boxes, although in a way it is, which is the problem in a nutshell).

But this in any case is the problem we need to engage with, not an imaginary increase in prison populations that are actually declining.

Ta-Nehisi Coates came up in the online comments to Brooks's column, in a note by Kevin Rothstein from "somewhere east of the GWB":
Mr. Brooks seems to think that releasing 300,000 non-violent, mostly drug offenders, from prison will not have much effect.
Many of those 300,000 are parents. How many children would have a parent back with them and maybe avoid incarceration themselves?
Conservatives like to cite the number of one-parent households and how the lack of both parents around makes it more likely that a child from a poor area will become a criminal.
Social problems are indeed more complex than they look. I just finished reading "Between The World And Me".
I suggest David (if he has not already) read same.

Hey Kevin, he claims to have read it already! He even wrote a review, sort of! Though we know he's not the most attentive reader.

One of the worst Annals of Derp offenses in memory took place today in the House hearing on Planned Parenthood in a phony statistical chart used by Rep. Jason Chaffetz in his harassment of Cecile Richards. Very nicely covered at Vox. Driftglass goes into the sad story of Barack Obama's flirtation with David Brooks.

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