A popular new video on the internet is wrong.
Specifically, a video published in the New York Times, narrated by Jay Z in cooperation with the Drug Policy Alliance, essentially makes the case that the war on drugs and its harsh, punitive sentences for drug possession and dealing led to mass incarceration — and, in particular, the racial disparities in incarceration.
Jay Z argues:
In 1986, when I was coming of age, Ronald Reagan doubled down on the war on drugs that had been started by Richard Nixon in 1971. Drugs were bad, fried your brain, and drug dealers were monsters — the sole reason neighborhoods and major cities were failing. No one wanted to talk about Reaganomics and the ending of social safety nets, the defunding of schools and the loss of jobs in cities across America. Young men like me who hustled became the sole villain, and drug addicts lacked moral fortitude.
In the 1990s, incarceration rates in the US blew up. Today, we imprison more people than any other country in the world. China, Russia, Iran, Cuba — all countries we consider autocratic and repressive. Yeah, more than them.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The video is right that although black people use and sell drugs at similar rates as white people, black people are much more likely to be arrested and locked up for drugs.
But the video then asserts that it was a rise in prison sentences for drugs that led to mass incarceration — a myth widely perpetuated by Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.
This is just not true. As criminologist John Pfaff wrote in the Washington Post, “since 1990, 60 percent of the growth in state prison populations has come from locking up violent offenders.” And those state prisons make up about 86 percent of the overall US prison population.
The prison statistics bear this out: Drug offenders make up about 21 percent of the jail and prison population. But violent offenders — in for crimes like murder, assault, and robbery — make up nearly 40 percent of the prison population. The rest of the prison population is in for public order violations, property crimes, and lower-level offenses.
This isn’t merely a semantic point; it’s crucial to actually addressing mass incarceration. Criminal justice reformers have, through the bipartisan #Cut50, set out to cut the US’s prison population by 50 percent over 10 years. That kind of drastic reduction is needed because the US is so far above the international average for incarceration — America’s imprisonment rate is 693 inmates per 100,000 people, while the UK, France, Germany, and Canada are all below 150 per 100,000.
But the only way to get closer to other countries’ levels is by relaxing sentences for violent crimes. Cutting 21 percent of the prison population, in the unrealistic case that all drugs were legalized, would only push the US incarceration rate to about 547 — still far above what other developed, democratic countries have.
If those numbers aren’t enough for you, maybe this great interactive by the Marshall Project will drive home the point. Releasing drug offenders isn’t enough to reach 50 percent of the state prison population. Neither is also releasing everyone who’s in for property crimes like theft and burglary. And neither is also releasing everyone who’s in for public order offenses. At some point, you have to cut sentences for violent crimes.
What’s more, addressing violent crime was the intent of mass incarceration. From the 1960s through ’90s, crime in America was unusually high: The murder rate peaked at 10.2 in 1980, compared with 4.5 in 2013 and 2014. Other crimes, particularly robbery, were alarmingly high as well. So Americans back then were much more likely, based on Gallup’s surveys, to say crime was “the most important problem.” And lawmakers reacted with mass incarceration, increasing the prison sentences for nearly every type of crime — especially violent ones.
This policy prescription wasn’t very effective. There is no historical correlation between higher incarceration rates and dropping crime rates — incarceration rose steeply for two decades before crime began to fall, as scholar William Stuntz documented in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice. And a 2015 review of the research by the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that more incarceration explained 0 to 7 percent of the crime drop since the 1990s, while other researchers estimate it drove 10 to 25 percent of the crime drop since the ’90s. (There are many other theories for why violent crime fell by roughly half in this time period.)
So it should be possible to reduce prison sentences for some violent offenders without endangering the public. After all, the research shows people tend to age out of crime — someone in his late teens, 20s, or early 30s is much more likely to commit a crime than someone in his 50s or 60s. So if a violent offender is locked up in his 20s for five, 10, or 20 years instead of 30, 40, or 50 years or life, it likely wouldn’t pose a big public safety threat. (Some criminal justice experts, like Mark Kleiman, Angela Hawken, and Ross Halperin, also have some great ideas to ensure the violent offender’s transition from prison back to society goes smoothly.)
Yet most Americans remain unaware of these basic facts about mass incarceration. As a recent Vox–Morning Consult poll found, 61 percent of US voters think that nearly half of the prison population is in for drug offenses. Perhaps as a result, most US voters support policies to ease prison sentences for drug crimes but not violent offenses.
As long as people continue blaming the war on drugs for mass incarceration, this isn’t going to change — a public that thinks nearly half of US prisoners are in for drug offenses is very unlikely to think that cutting prison sentences for violent crimes is necessary to fix mass incarceration. To that end, Jay Z’s video and others like it do far more harm than good when it comes to stopping mass incarceration.