Why Are Our Prisons So Full? David Brooks of the New York Times Has a New Theory

The United States has an enormous prison population. LBN’s Bob Donley has talked about it several times, including this report in July. Donley says that a new theory has emerged as to why our prisons are so full, holding over 2 million inmates, the largest prison population in the world.

Donley reports that David Brooks, an Op-Ed commentator for the New York Times, recently offered a different opinion. Brooks notes that the War on Drugs and mandatory minimum sentences have been blamed for America’s large prison population, as LBN has reported. But, Brooks says, “The popular explanation for how we got here, however, seems to be largely wrong, and most of the policy responses flowing from it may therefore be inappropriate.

Brooks argues that the math does not work out. He says that 90% of America’s prisoners are being held in state prisons and that only 17% of those are being held for drug convictions. Donley says that, according to Brooks, the War on Drugs cannot be the cause for the high rate of incarceration in the U.S. just based on mathematics. So ending the war will not solve the prison population problem.

Brooks relies on information in a study by Fordham law professor John Pfaff. Brooks discussed the study with Pfaff. As Brooks says, Pfaff reported that “Roughly half of all prisoners have prison terms in the range of two to three years, and only 10 percent serve more than seven years.” According to Pfaff, Donley says, very little has changed over the past thirty years.

Brooks offers a couple of thoughts by Professor Pfaff on the growth in the prison population. One is that the growth in America’s prison population tracks with the turning out of a lot of people from mental institutions in the 1970s. Donley reports that more aggressive prosecutors have played a big part in increasing the prison population. Reporting Pfaff’s theory, Brooks writes that “[Prosecutors] have gotten a lot more aggressive in bringing felony charges. Twenty years ago they brought felony charges against about one in three arrestees. Now it’s something like two in three."

That is the theory David Brooks advances on why prison populations have grown so dramatically. It should be noted that commentators Ryan King and Peter Moskos don’t agree with Brooks and Pfaff. LBN will continue to watch the incarceration issue.

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