We Don’t Have a ‘Mass Incarceration Problem’ in America (and Other Myths About Police and Crime)

The tumultuous summer of 2020 prompted Americans to question our country’s criminal justice system. Fueled by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, political leaders and the media used these examples and others to attack police, prosecutors, and the rule of law.

Today, we know they peddled a false narrative. Unfortunately, we’re seeing the consequences of their policies.

It’s thanks to the work of scholars such as Rafael Mangual at the Manhattan Institute that we know the truth about criminal justice in the United States. Mangual is the author of a new book, “Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most.”

Mangual, who joins this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast,” is the Nick Ohnell fellow and head of research for the Policing and Public Safety Initiative at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

Rob Bluey: Americans were led to believe that we live in a country with an overly punitive and racially oppressive criminal justice system. You debunked this myth. Tell us what you uncover in “Criminal (In)Justice”?

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Rafael Mangual: What I uncover is that there is a yawning gap between the rhetoric of our criminal justice reform debate in this country and reality. Right? I think you put it quite well when you say that the sort of dominant narrative about criminal justice in the U.S. is that it’s fairly characterized as overly punitive, racially oppressive. Right?

You hear a lot about our “mass incarceration problem.” You hear a lot about over-policing. You hear a lot about racial disparities in criminal justice enforcement statistics, arrests, incarcerations, police uses of force, etc. All of these things obfuscate a really important reality, which is that, actually, the United States is not nearly as punitive as you would think, if you were just a casual observer of the debate.

We don’t have a “mass incarceration problem.” And I say this not because it isn’t true that we incarcerate more than a lot of other Western European democracies to which we’re often unfavorably compared. That is true. But the question is why, right?

And so … when you look at our crime data, for example, our incarceration statistics make a lot more sense, right? We have a lot more pockets of serious concentrated crime in the United States, crime of the sort that would land you a lengthy prison sentence anywhere in the world, including in a lot of the Western European democracies that are often pointed to as doing criminal justice policy better.

The vast majority of people in prison, for example, are there because they’re serious chronic and violent offenders. These are people who have committed violent crimes either most recently or in their past criminal history. These are people who post a significant risk of recidivism.

A lot of people don’t know this, but over about a 10-year period, our recidivism rate in the United States is above 80%, which means less than 20% of individuals released from state prison here actually desist from crime.

We don’t systematically deny people second chances, which is another central part of the narrative, or we have Second Chance Month here in the United States.

But the idea that we deny people second chances in some systematic ways is incongruous with the reality that, for example, in the state prison population, the average prisoner has more than 10 prior arrests and more than five prior convictions. These are not people who have been denied second chances. These are people who have been given second, third, fourth, and fifth chances.

And what I wanted to do with the book was illustrate what the downside risk associated with that kind of approach to criminal justice policy-making is, and also show who bears the brunt of that downside risk.

And so there’s so much that we hear about racial inequity in the criminal justice system. And it’s true that the costs associated with enforcement are not evenly distributed around the United States. It is also true, though, that the costs associated with crime are not evenly distributed around the United States.

We have this pretense in our debate where we pretend that the only outputs of the criminal justice system that matter are enforcement statistics. And that’s not true.

When the criminal justice system is doing its job, when it is achieving its stated ends as stated by the people at the system’s helm, what it does is it produces crime declines. And when you look at who benefits from those crime declines, it’s precisely the communities that reformers, and I use that word loosely, say that they are representing in their push to decarcerate and de-police.

Bluey: There were some pretty big policy changes that took place. You report that more than 30 states passed over 100 bills in the year following George Floyd’s death. What happened in the aftermath of some of these changes?

Mangual: We saw in 2020, the single largest year-over-year homicide spike in the country’s recorded history. And so that I think is incredibly troubling. We saw more than a dozen U.S. cities break all-time homicide records since 2020. We have seen more than a dozen more come very close to breaking their all-time homicide records.

Now, obviously, I’m not saying that it is 100% the case that each one of these reforms is responsible for the entirety of that crime increase, right? What causes crime to go up and down is complicated.

But when you engage in a policy program that systematically lowers the transaction cost of crime by making arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations less likely, while at the same time raising the transaction cost of enforcing the law by reducing and restricting police powers, by raising the bar for certain prosecutions, in terms of just the compliance burden associated with that kind of project, well, you’re going to create the conditions for the kind of resurgent crime that we’ve seen over the last few years.

And again, it’s really, really important that when we talk about this, we tend to do this in national terms or statewide terms or citywide terms or countywide terms. And it’s an understandable colloquialism. But the reality is that crime is very, very hyper-concentrated. There really isn’t such a thing as America’s crime problem.

In any given city in the United States, less than 5% of street segments will see about 50% of all violent crime. In my home city of New York, for example, a minimum of 95% of all shooting victims every single year are either black or Hispanic. Almost all of them are males. And I can assure you that blacks and Hispanics do not constitute anywhere near 95% of New York City’s population.

So when we talk about these crime rises, we have to do it, I think, with the explicit recognition that this problem disproportionately affected low-income minority communities that were already dealing with enough social problems.

And so that I think to me really just makes this an even more urgent problem to solve, at least if you accept, or especially if you accept, the sort of framework that a lot of progressive reformers tend to operate within, and that’s viewing these public policy problems through the lens of racial equity.

Bluey: And just so I understand, you’re talking specifically about the policies of decarceration and de-policing in terms of having a disproportionate impact on those low-income or black and Hispanic communities?

Mangual: That’s exactly right. When you read a news article about some drive-by shooting that wounded five people at a graduation party in a low-income minority neighborhood, when an arrest is made, it almost invariably turns out to be the case that the individual charged with that crime has 10, 15, 20 prior arrests, was out on probation, was out on parole, was out on pretrial release, right?

The sort of policies that allow individuals who, through their conduct, have made very, very clear that they don’t intend to play by society’s rules—when the system allows them to find their way back out onto the street time and again, after they’ve been arrested, that is going to minimize the incapacitation benefits that society enjoys from the incarceration of those individuals.

And again, those individuals are not going to just spend their time evenly across an entire city. They’re largely going to spend the vast majority of their time in the neighborhoods in which they live, in the neighborhoods in which crime concentrates, and that’s who’s going to pay the price for these things.

And so I open up the book by telling a story about a shooting video that I had watched in 2019. It shows the murder of a woman named Brittany Hill on the West Side of Chicago in this broad daylight drive-by shooting.

She’s caught in a crossfire. I don’t think she was the intended target. She was holding a 1-year-old daughter at the time that she was shot. So this little girl just nearly missed being wounded herself. Turns to shield her daughter, gets about maybe 10 feet before she collapses with her daughter still clinging to her, and then bleeds out in the middle of the street as the shooting continues.

And now the shooting was captured on video. It was a Chicago Police Department surveillance camera that had been installed in that neighborhood. And because it was caught on video, the police were able to make an arrest relatively quickly.

And one of the individuals charged with that shooting was a guy named Michael Washington who had nine prior felony convictions, was out on parole. God knows how many prior arrests he had. One of his felony convictions was for a second-degree murder.

So when you talk about reducing the prison population to achieve parity with other Western European democracies—which, by the way, would require the U.S. to cut our incarceration rate by about 70% to 80%—you’re talking about releasing people like that who have very, very high likelihoods of reoffending and reoffending violently.

And that is a gamble that purveyors of this kind of policy program are taking with the lives of people who live in neighborhoods that oftentimes these reformers wouldn’t dare live in themselves.

Bluey: George Soros, as you know, has invested his fortune to elect what he calls reform prosecutors, or what my Heritage Foundation colleagues call rogue prosecutors. What are some of Soros’ goals and why are they so problematic?

Mangual: Soros shares the goal of pursuing racial equity through criminal justice reform by making incarceration less likely, by raising the transaction cost of policing in the community.

We’ve seen him by his own admission, he just published a piece in The Wall Street Journal, defending his support of “reform prosecutors.”

He has engaged in a campaign of electing individuals to office and DA’s offices and county attorney’s offices who have been very explicit in their goal not to prosecute certain offenses, to essentially aggregate dually enacted laws and to not seek pretrial detention in certain kinds of cases, as a matter of policy; to support parole in certain cases, as a matter of policy; or to prohibit prosecutors from opposing parole.

The basic idea that motivates Soros and a lot of people who agree with him is that the U.S. incarcerates far too much and therefore, everything needs to be done within our control to make that a less likely outcome of involvement with the criminal justice system.

The problem, though, is that he is not looking at the other side of the ledger. He does not seem to fully appreciate what the benefits are associated with incarcerating people who are likely to reoffend. And this is something that I called him out for after he wrote his piece in The Wall Street Journal. I wrote a piece responding to him in the City Journal.

He is very much motivated by this sort of racial equity argument, this idea that over-representation—at least compared to the proportion of the population constituted by certain minority communities—is a problem in and of itself. It’s prima facie evidence of racial animus built into the system. And so, to the degree that exists, we need to undo that reality by essentially dismantling the system’s ability to put people behind bars, even in the cases where that makes sense.

One of the problems with this is that it, again, pretends that the only outputs of the criminal justice system that matter are those with respect to enforcement statistics. And this is, I think, a major flaw in the systemic racism argument as to the criminal justice system, because what it fails to recognize is that there’s another side of the ledger, right?

If the idea is that the criminal justice system was designed and is operated to the specific detriment of low-income minority communities, then the question becomes, why on earth is it the case that when the system works as the people at the system’s home say it’s designed to work, i.e., when it achieves crime declines, that the people that benefit are also low-income minority community members, right?

There’s a study that I cite in the book done by a criminologist named Patrick Sharkey, who I often probably part ways with on policy questions, but he does an analysis of the homicide decline between 1990 and 2014.

He finds that it adds a full year of life expectancy to the average black men in America, while only adding 0.14 years of life expectancy to the average white men in America.

Now, you ask any police chief in the country, and prior to the progressive prosecutor movement, most prosecutors in the country, and ask them what their goal is, they would’ve told you to reduce crime. Well, when that happens, it’s not rich white communities that benefit. We know this from the data.

And so, that is a really important incongruity that my book highlights that I think pokes a big hole in the systemic racism critique that I think animates a lot of people like Soros to engage in the kind of decarceration and de-policing projects that we’ve seen become popular over the last few years.

Bluey: Given what you just have said and the tragic consequences that result, are you surprised that some politicians, including those running for office today, continue to advocate for decarceration and de-policing?

Mangual: I’m not terribly surprised. A couple reasons. One, I don’t think that they see themselves as politically vulnerable on the crime front, at least with respect to the racial equity question. But I also think some of them sincerely believe that you can reduce crime without having to turn to the heavy hands of the criminal justice system.

And this is something that I anticipated in my book as a retort. And it’s one of the reasons why the second half of the first chapter is dedicated to pushing back on this root cause argument.

But I think a lot of people who are on the fringes of the reform movement and actually now, very much in the mainstream of the reform movement, I think they sincerely believe that crime is really just a function of a lack of investment. That if you just threw more money into anti-poverty programs, that would solve our crime problem, that the violent crime is largely a function of socioeconomic inequality.

And I just don’t think that is the case. I don’t think the data support that argument. And I make that case early on in the book in part to preempt this retort.

But take my home city of New York, for example, and just look at 1989 and 2016. The reason I’m picking these two years is because 1989 is the year that preceded New York City’s peak for homicides, which was in 1990. We saw 2,262 killings that year. And 2016 is the year that preceded our valley homicide number, which is 292.

So over that period, we reduced homicides more than 90%. And if you look at the poverty rate in New York City, it didn’t change almost at all. In fact, it moves slightly in the wrong direction. So poverty gets slightly worse, yet we’re able to reduce homicides by nearly 90%.

What that tells you is that even to the extent that measures like poverty or unemployment or income inequality are associated with higher rates of crime, we don’t have to wait to figure out a way to solve one of society’s most intractable problems in order to provide people with the public safety that they desperately need. We know this because we’ve done it before without actually doing any of that. Right?

If you look at the Great Recession, for example, 2006 to 2010, the unemployment rate in the United States nearly doubles, the homicide rate declines by 15%. We didn’t see a huge spike in homicides during the Great Depression. We did see homicides go up significantly in the 1920s, which was a period of economic boom.

And so the idea that we should just wait and see if we can solve poverty, if we can solve inequality, which is, again, a problem that is just endemic to human existence, right? It’s something that’s a common denominator across societies, across human history. The idea that we need to do that in order to get crime into control is, I think, misguided and it distracts us from the important reality, which is that there are things we can do today to make streets safer.

Bluey: How did your own experiences shape your thinking and inspire you to do the research that led to the book?

Mangual: It was a few things. My father was an NYPD detective. And so I grew up around law enforcement and I think that allowed me to develop a healthy respect for that institution over my formative years.

But when I got to college, that was when I really was confronted with this kind of vitriolic opposition to these institutions that I had always intuitively understood to be sort of central to a functioning society. And I found myself really just at odds with what a lot of my professors were telling me.

And that was when I started doing a lot of the research. And the more research I did, the more I started to see that what my own experiences told me was actually true.

I mean, my family was fortunate enough to be able to move me and my sister out to a Long Island suburb from Brooklyn, New York, in the middle of the 1990s at a time in which crime was really a daily concern. But I realized through that experience and through staying connected with people who didn’t have that fortune, that that was a privilege of mine. And that really, I think, helped me fully appreciate the inequity with respect to the risk of victimization.

My wife is from the West Side of Chicago. And we have family that live in neighborhoods that are really struggling with serious violent crime. We were, in my last year of law school, caught in the middle of a shooting. We actually witnessed a shooting in the middle of the street, broad daylight, bullets literally flying past our car.

Now, this was a neighborhood that we barely spent any time and only we were going to visit family. And yet we were still nearly victimized in that way. So imagine what it must be like to live in a community that sees gun violence on a daily basis.

And that is really, I think, at the root of why I wanted to write this book. I mean, it just seemed to me like the victims of crime didn’t really have a consistent voice that was making the case against the kind of misguided ideas that were going to make their daily life less safe.

Bluey: Thank you for doing that. On that note, are you hopeful that America will return to traditional crime control measures, perhaps as a result of the information that you’re presenting or the work that others are doing in this field?

Mangual: I certainly wrote the book with the goal of influencing the debate in that direction. I don’t think in the short term I’m very optimistic about where we’re headed, unfortunately.

I think part of that is just because things have been moving in this direction for some time now. The reform movement may have lost a little momentum, but not really. And I think that actually tells us a lot more.

I think back to New York City in 1993, Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani barely won that race by the skin of his teeth, even though New York was seeing close to 2,000 murders a year. And so that was, I think, indicative of just how bad things really needed to get before there was a kind of round backlash.

Now, I will say that my hope is that every time the pendulum swings past the point of equilibrium, that it doesn’t go as far as it did the last time. And therefore, comes back to the center much more quickly.

So I don’t think we’ll have to wait as long this time around, but I do think we’re some time away before people are really fed up with the kind of direction that lots of cities have been moving in.

Bluey: What are things that we as individual citizens can do to combat either the myths about our criminal justice system or maybe take action either locally with our own law enforcement agencies to make sure that they are responsive to some of the concerns that we have as citizens, particularly if there are individuals or listeners who are living in high-crime areas?

Mangual: Get involved with your local police department. A lot of police departments in American cities across the country will hold monthly precinct-level meetings where you can go and voice your concerns about crime there. Engage with your local representatives.

I think a lot of the momentum of the criminal justice reform movement, particularly its more radical wing, owes to the fact that a lot of people just have been passive, they haven’t pushed back. I think partly because, again, the vast majority of people live in communities that are as safe as the safest places in the world. And so crime’s just not a daily concern for them.

One of the most important things that we could do to probably hasten the process of getting us back in the direction of sane criminal justice policy is to make more data available to help us illustrate what the problems actually are.

It’s crazy to me that in so many cities, we can’t say for certain, for example, how many arrests on average the typical homicide suspect has. That we can’t say what percentage of that city’s crime is committed by people out on probation, out on parole, out on pretrial release. How does that compare to recent years?

I mean, making this data available will allow the narratives to be interrogated more thoroughly and more accurately and in a more objective way. And that, I think, will advance the conversation more quickly and get us to a sounder place. At least that’s my hope.

Bluey: How can our listeners follow your work and the Policing and Public Safety initiative at the Manhattan Institute?

Mangual: You can go to manhattan-institute.org. You can sign up for our Manhattan Institute daily emails, for our Policing and Public Safety initiative update emails. You can follow me and my colleagues on Twitter. I’m @Rafa_Mangual. Follow people like Hannah Meyers, our director of the Policing and Public Safety initiative; Charles Fain Lehman, who’s a fellow here; Robert VerBruggen—lots of really just great minds doing a lot of important work.

And again, it’s a topic that’s near and dear to our hearts. Public safety is something I think we understand to be a necessary condition for a dynamic urban economy. And it’s what motivates us to do the kind of work that we do and to do it in a level-headed way. So I hope your listeners will engage with our work and I hope maybe they’ll start with my book.

Bluey: We know that the Manhattan Institute has a long track record of success when it comes to these policy issues. And so we’re thankful to you for writing the book. Again, it’s called “Criminal (In)Justice: What the Push for Decarceration and Depolicing Gets Wrong and Who It Hurts Most.” We thank you for writing it, for doing this interview and presenting some common sense, which hopefully our policymakers will take to heart as they consider the policies that impact our criminal justice system here in the United States. Thank you so much for joining us on “The Daily Signal Podcast.”

Mangual: Thank you so much for having me.

The post We Don’t Have a ‘Mass Incarceration Problem’ in America (and Other Myths About Police and Crime) appeared first on The Daily Signal.


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