John Pfaff’s Locked In is about mass incarceration in the United States and how to address the problem. However, he argues we are mostly tinkering around the edges. According to Pfaff, the real causes of mass incarceration will be more difficult that we think because we are, most of us, locked in a worldview that misrepresents the problem. For example, most people think most of the people in prison are low level drug offenders, not offenders who have committed a violent crime. But that is not true. Some of this is the simplistic focus on federal laws and federal prisons, but even if we released every single person in federal prison down to the most horrific offenders, we would still be the country that imprisons more people than any other country. Even countries we classify as oppressive and tyrannical imprison a smaller share of their population.
As Pfaff rigorously goes through the data, he shows that most of the “Standard Story” of mass incarceration caused by the war on drugs, long mandatory minimums, and private prisons is wrong, unproductive, and misses the point. Certainly he believes it is important to reduce the number of people in prison for nonviolent offenses, but generally those reforms are traded for tougher penalties for offenders who have committed a violent crime. He urges we shift the paradigm and question whether we are locking people up too long and too often for crimes that are classified as violent. He points out that life without parole is costly and often unnecessary as people age out of criminality, that violence for most offenders is a transitory action, not a way of being. He also provides data that suggests other responses such as diversion, therapy, parole and more are more effective with fewer social costs.
Pfaff is good at finding why the system is out of control. That it is diffuse, not a single criminal justice system but thousands of them. He also demonstrates, as research has before, that prosecutors are the least accountable and most responsible actor in over-incarceration.
Perhaps most fascinating is the way he identifies the many ways we go wrong. The moral hazard of counties that arrest, charge, and sentence people to prison, prisons they don’t pay for so they have no incentive to consider the cost. The injustice of suburban voters determining the policing and law enforcement priorities of urban neighborhoods. That criminal justice is a low information issue for most voters, but highly salient. They care so much about it and know next to nothing, constantly reelecting prosecutors, judges, and sheriffs without question or challenge, most of the time. For these electeds, leniency is high risk and overzealous prosecution never hurts them. The saying may be that it’s better 10 guilty go free than one innocent be unjustly imprisoned, but the political reality is the opposite.
Locked In is a book criminal justice reformers need to read as soon as they can, because some reform rhetoric gets in the way of the more effective and tougher reforms needed in the future. Pfaff is a data guy, not a salesman, he doesn’t have persuasive propagandistic rhetoric and he is going to irritate people on the left and the right, but he goes where the facts lead him. So for the right, they will resist his matter of fact acknowledgement that racism plays a big role in judicial decisions and even in the quantitative algorithms that are created for parole boards. They also won’t like his pointing out that prisons are a gerrymander for Republicans in Congress. The left will resist his argument that public sector prisons and unions exert more influence on the law than private prisons whose lobbying pales in comparison. He suggests the more honest argument would be based in opposition to privatizing public services. The book is data-driven with no rhetorical flourishes, so some will find it dry, but it is important and timely as reform movements must direct their efforts to the states as well as the federal system.
The urgency he feels is a fear that we will waste this opportunity where some states are now willing to consider reforms, that we will continue to trade reduced sentences for drug crimes for longer, harsher sentences for other crimes. He wants us to change the way we talk about offenders who commit a violent crime, to avoid labeling them as “violent offenders” when that violent offense is a single act and not representative of their entire lives.
Pfaff is more radical than most reformers, because he believes most reformers are trapped in a false narrative that focuses on the federal prison system, while the behemoth of state and local incarceration is ignored. He also thinks reformers need to address the overly punitive treatment of people who commit a violent crime, a difficult and challenging argument to make, though he does not make the obvious point that Americans are perfectly comfortable with a high level of violence as they are unwilling to regulate guns effectively.
He offers several reforms, many that seem quite small, such as requiring transparency of prosecutors, or having charging guidelines that preclude the use of unlikely sentences to coerce plea agreements. He believes we need to focus more on the front end, on what we charge people, how long people are sentenced. Some of his reforms are not politically possible and he knows that, but he also believes that we begin now to work toward them by not using rhetoric and strategies for current wins that will make wins down the road harder to achieve.
- Rethinking Mass Incarceration – an interview with John Pfaff at The Atlantic
- Locked In at Basic Books
- John Pfaff Faculty Page