Todd Clear: Why America’s Mass Incarceration Experiment Failed

Todd Clear is the provost of Rutgers University-Newark. Clear specializes in the study of criminal justice.

Todd Clear is the provost of Rutgers University-Newark. Clear specializes in the study of criminal justice.

April 29, 2014

The provost of Rutgers University-Newark, Todd Clear specializes in the study of criminal justice, and is the author of Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse. He spoke with FRONTLINE about this cycle of incarceration, why it’s failed and what it’s doing to disadvantaged communities, especially African Americans. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on May 23, 2013.

Common sense might suggest the more people you lock up, the fewer crimes there will be. …

For a long time the simple idea that a person who is in prison can’t commit crimes has dominated our thinking about crime prevention through incarceration. It’s a straightforward idea, and it makes a lot of sense and is in fact mostly true. That person who is incarcerated, while locked up, will not be committing crimes. But that does not mean crimes won’t be committed.

So there are several problems with the central thesis. One is that most crimes that are committed are committed by young men in groups, and if you take one person out of that group and lock that person up, it doesn’t mean the groups seize up or stop being criminally active.

In an area of drug-related crimes, drug markets for example, there’s incentive to recruit someone into the group who maybe would not necessarily have been involved in it. And when the issue is gun-related drug crime, the idea is you bring a person in who might not have been involved in this way, and you’ll give that person a gun. So the crime rates that the community experiences continue largely unaffected with these one-on-one individuals going through the prison system.

The second thing that’s wrong with this idea is that we sort of have this vision that you locked this person up, that that person’s just locked up. But they’re not actually locked up. They are in prison for a couple of years or three, and then they’re back out again. In these neighborhoods where we have very large numbers of people cycling in and out of the prison system, you have this homeostasis of a bunch of missing men, but some are being removed every month and some are returning every month. …

That community is stable. The men who are missing are missing. The groups who are criminally active stay criminally active. And the incarceration experience has surprisingly little impact on crime.

“We have been growing the prison population whether crime rates went up or went down, whether we were in good economic times or bad, during war, during peace, when the number of young men in the crime-prone age groups was increasing at the same time that it was decreasing.”

Just to say it in another way, in 1972 we had about 200,000 people in prison. We now have about 1.2 million people in prison. We have six times the number of people locked up, and we have basically the same crime rate we had. …

Also, locking people up had a boomerang effect. So, for example, one of the things we know is that going to prison reduces your lifetime earnings by 30 to 40 percent. So if you have a neighborhood where every male has been in prison, you have a neighborhood where the men as a group are earning 40 percent less income.

A number of the men are gone at any given time; they’re locked up. And then the men that are there are not able to produce income to support families, to support children, to buy goods, to make the neighborhood have economic activity to support businesses. So for that neighborhood, the net effect of rates of incarceration is that the neighborhood has trouble adjusting. Neighborhoods where there’s limited economic activity around the legitimate market are neighborhoods where you have a rightness to grow illegitimate markets.

Then there are just dozens of other examples. For example, having a parent going to prison increases the chances of a child ending up in the criminal justice system by about 25 percent. So if you have a neighborhood where all the adult males are going to prison, you have a neighborhood where the children’s risk of going to prison … is about a quarter higher.

So we’re, in a way, in these neighborhoods with high incarceration rates, producing the mechanisms that lead to high crime rates.

… Many people are [unaware] that the incarceration rate, the number of people locked up in America, has risen by quite such an extent over the last 30, 40 years. It’s just unprecedented in history anywhere in the world. …

When I talk about this to an audience, I often ask the question, “How many people here who are listening to me where born after the year 1971?” A lot of hands go up. And then I say to them, “You never lived in America in a year when the prison population didn’t grow.” …

Other countries had growth in their incarceration rates for shorter periods of time, but the United States has been the world leader for almost 40 years. We have been growing the prison population whether crime rates went up or went down, whether we were in good economic times or bad, during war, during peace, when the number of young men in the crime-prone age groups was increasing at the same time that it was decreasing.

No matter what was going on in the environment, we grew the prison population. We grew it by increasing the length of stay, and we grew it by increasing the rate of going to prison given that you’re convicted of a felony.

In 1972, three-quarters of the people who were convicted of felonies got no prison sentences. Today that ratio is reversed. Three-quarters get a prison sentence, and of the quarter who get some non-prison sentence, half go to jail as a condition of that sentence. In 1972, the median length of stay in prisons was about 15 months. It’s now about 30 months.

We’ve grown the prison population intentionally by changing the policies of sentencing regardless of the crime rate. In fact, the crime now is about what it was when we started this experiment, and the experiment has produced a sixfold increase in the number of prisoners and an eight-fold increase in the number of people incarcerated.

… You said we have consciously done this. Why have we consciously done it?

I think there was kind of a perfect storm in the ’70s and particularly in the ’80s that led to policies that would grow the prison population.

The first was that we had gone through about a 15-year period of rising crime rates. It’s interesting; the big jump in the crime rates occurred in the decade before the prison population began to grow. But that growth in the crime rates created a kind of political reaction.

There was also in the ’70s — people don’t necessarily remember this — a lot of uproar about the Vietnam War. There was a lot of uproar about civil rights. So there was a sense that there was complete social disruption going on in the U.S. and we had to get control of it again.

If you were a person running for political office at that time, the easiest, the lowest hanging fruit was to argue for tougher sentencing for people convicted of crimes. And really there was no personal nature to this argument. If you’re a Democrat or if you’re Republican, no matter who you were, you ran for office, you had to have some kind of relationship to a get-tough agenda. So it was widespread across the country.

What’s interesting is that that’s changed. In the last presidential elections and mayoral elections and senatorial elections, the crime issue has really not been as burning of an issue. Nationally I think we are now ready for a different conversation about crime policy. But in the ’70s, you really couldn’t have a rational discussion about crime or about responding to crime. It was all about this visceral sense that the world had gone amok and the country had to take control of itself.

Tell me about when you first started to explore the idea that incarceration, when pushed to its extremes, might create more crime than it prevented and the reaction you had to that thesis.

In the late 1980s, I wrote a paper. The title of the paper was “Boomerang: How Prison Makes Crime Worse.” I explored half a dozen existing theories of how crime gets created and looked at the relationship between incarceration and those theories and then had the idea later that more people in prison might produce more crime rates. …

Had trouble getting the paper published. … In fact, I got three kinds of reviews, interestingly enough. One review of the paper was by a standard criminologist who said: “This is crazy. Everybody knows when you put a person in prison the neighborhood gets better.” A second review was usually a person of color, an African-American criminologist, who said: “Of course. We’ve known this is true for a long time.” And then the third review would be: “Wow, I never thought of it this way. This paper should be published.” Well, in the peer-review business in academia, if you get reviews [like] this, nobody publishes it, the paper.

“I think there is a general sense right now that we have built a beast that has to be unbuilt, and people are trying to figure out how we do it.”

We got a very small grant from Open Society Institute to do some work in Tallahassee, Fla., and it was supported by another small grant from the federal government, and we began mapping incarceration rates in Leon County and then interviewing in some neighborhoods there.

In two of the neighborhoods that had very high incarceration rates … we spent the summer walking in the neighborhoods and talking to residents, sitting in churches, sitting in restaurants. And of course these are neighborhoods that are African American neighborhoods, including the neighborhood called Frenchtown, which was the only area in Leon County where African Americans were allowed to own houses after Emancipation.

What we found was two things that were stunningly important. One is we talked to over 125 people, and … all 125 had a family member who had been incarcerated within the last five years, including a former mayor, including the reverend of the biggest church in the area, including an officer of the Urban League. What this meant to us was that in these black neighborhoods in Tallahassee, … every family was dealing with it. Every family had a story to tell.

The second thing that we learned was that there was a conversation going on in these neighborhoods about incarceration. They got it. We heard again and again: “If this was being done in a white neighborhood, no one would stand for it. The only reason they are getting away with this is because they are locking up young black men.” And we heard them say: “Look, we want to be protected and safe like everybody else. And there are people in our neighborhood who if you locked them up we’d be better off, but mostly you’re locking up our sons and our brothers and our cousins, and they just need help. They need to get a job; they need to get off drugs. But they’re not dangerous to us. And when you lock them up, you know what? They come back anyway, and they come back worse.”

This was the story that got us thinking about incarceration policy in the United States. It turns out none of these people are criminologists, none of them are scientists, none of them spend their time studying this, but they are exactly right.

The high incarceration rates in these neighborhoods we found statistically were associated with increases of crime, at a time when the rest of Tallahassee crime was dropping. And the high rates of incarceration that seemed to be making crime worse in these neighborhoods were producing [the] effect of destabilized families, children being raised without adults, broken families and so on.

Could you just explain to me that Tallahassee isn’t unique? … And then could you go on to explain why that may lead to an increase in crime? …

The incarceration rate in the United States is not evenly distributed across people or geography. Young black men are six times more likely to be locked up than young white men, and young black men that live in neighborhoods that are poor in urban areas are three to five times more likely to be locked up than young black men in other kinds of neighborhoods.

What we know is that crime concentrates. Incarceration rates concentrate the same way crime concentrates in urban areas that are unsafe. What this means is that in every city in America, there will be neighborhoods where as many as one-fourth of the young men are locked up on any given day. Now, that doesn’t mean that that’s only them, because different men are being locked up at different times.

If you stretch across time, most of the young men who live in this neighborhood will have criminal justice histories, and as many as a vast majority of them will end up having prison be a part of their adult lives. For young black men without a high school degree, 50 percent end up in prison at sometime in their lives. So this is an experience that really concentrates in urban areas.

For these neighborhoods where these are troubled neighborhoods to begin with, when you make it so that young men are supposed to be raising families, getting jobs, producing income, supporting children, and when instead of doing those things these young men are behind bars, you make it so that the people who stay behind in those communities have more trouble doing the kind of things they need to do in order to have high-quality lives.

For example, if a lot of young men are locked up, that means the young women who live in that neighborhood find it more difficult to form long-term marital relationships with men. We know, for example, that black men who have been to prison and are released from prison, a year after their release, [they are] as likely to be living with a woman with children as a young black man who’s never been to prison, but they’re one-fourth as likely to be married to that woman. So prison becomes a way that we produce the expectation of destabilized relationships in these neighborhoods.

One of the consequences of unstable intimate relationships is the higher rate of transmitting sexual diseases. One of the things we know is in these neighborhoods, STDs like gonorrhea, syphilis and even HIV/AIDS are more prevalent partly because of the cycling of young men in the neighborhood and the fact that women who are staying in those neighborhoods are less capable of forming long-term, safe attachments to those men.

We also know that a higher proportion of children being raised without a father in the home is partly a consequence of incarceration rates in these neighborhoods. And we know that being raised without a parent in the home, in these already disadvantaged neighborhoods, sets the stage for a high risk of dropping out of school, higher risk of problems in school, higher risk of problems with the law, higher risks of mental illness and so on.

One of the families which we have been following — very loving family actually, but six kids, five different fathers — all the fathers have been in and out of prison for all those children’s lives. And predictably, two of those children are absolutely getting sucked into the criminal justice system now.

It’s hard to talk about this without stereotyping the people. It’s very easy to think of the people who live in these neighborhoods in these categories with these stereotypes.

When you talk to them and when you spend time with them, you learn about all of the kinds of things they are doing to manage the problems of their lives: the loving relationships they form, the great amount of support they provide to each other, because really they don’t have support from other sectors. If they’re going to find something, it’s either social services of the state or their own family relationships.

[You learn] the way they problem-solve around someone’s locked up, someone’s coming out, someone doesn’t have a job, someone’s using drugs, all the kinds of additional stresses that these families have to face and have to manage. What you learn is that the stereotypes don’t serve as usefully.

They need us to think these families are just problem families, but they’re actually resourceful; they’re actually imaginative; they’re actually creative within the bounds of the kinds of restrictions that they face.

What they lack is resources, legal power and the ability in important ways to combat the implications of law enforcement in their lives. So those become the problems they end up dealing with.

But it’s easy to think of them in these kinds of stereotypical ways, and when we do that, we miss the point. We miss the point that we are wasting an enormously powerful reservoir of resources in these neighborhoods.

And we are making them weaker. Rather than being able to use them as investments to strengthen the neighborhoods, we end up making them less capable of doing the kinds of things that families and people in relationships with each other do to try to make their lives better.

I’d imagine an objection you must hear quite a lot to what you’re saying now is that surely [when] you lock up a criminal, it’s good for the family; it’s good for the kids. If your father’s a criminal, you’re better off without him.

… There’s many different stories, and there will be plenty of examples in which the person being removed from the family took a family in crisis and gave it a chance to catch its breath, do some problem solving and end up in a better place. There is no question about that. It’s also true that there will be men who go to prison whose lives turn around in there and come out. But on the average, that’s not the story.

On the average, the story is one whereby the person ends up being removed and going to prison, and that remaining family has less support. That man was providing some money. That man was providing some parenting.

The family ends up leaving whatever the residence was and moving into a more crowded residence. Oftentimes the woman who is left behind and who is parenting those children gets additional children into the household. Oftentimes another man comes into the household. If there was abuse before, sometimes abuse continues, just a different person.

The household now has a visceral responsibility to the guy who’s in prison. They have to decide whether to spend money to go visit, spend money on phone calls, spend money to send to the prison to put in the commissaries so that the person [who] is incarcerated can buy things. And the money is less because whatever income was being produced by that man is no longer available.

Now, I want to say even that’s a thin version of the story, because in these human stories, there is 50 things that happen once a person goes to prison, or 60 or 80. Some of them are better; some of them are worse. On the average, it is an enormous amount of disruption that sucks up resources of the family and ends up drawing the attention that could be used to do other kinds of things, like support kids going to school, help them do their homework, get kids involved in some activities. …

These are complicated families with complicated structures with lots of demands on their time, lots of contingency that they have to manage. So the families are extended in multiple ways with multiple relationships, and they try to deal with the inevitability of incarceration in the best way that they can.

Does prison deter people from committing crime?

This question in criminology is a well-researched one, so you’d think I’d be able to answer yes or no. It turns out that, like most criminology questions, the answer is a bit complicated.

The likelihood of going to prison is pretty low per crime, and it doesn’t change much. Arrest rates per crime in the United States has been very stable for 50 years, gone up a little bit, gone down a little bit over time, but they’re really pretty stable.

So if you decide to commit a felony, the chances of getting caught are pretty stable, and they’re so low that a rational actor might think, I can do this crime because I’m most likely going to get away with it.

What we mostly can change is the amount of time a person goes to prison for if we catch them, and that’s changed enormously. And what we find is that even huge changes — going from an expected length of stay of two years to five years — that has almost no impact on a person’s decision making. …

When you interview people who are involved in criminal activity about the current impact, all you find is they don’t think they’re going to be caught. So whether it’s two years or five years or eight years or 50 years doesn’t really matter to them. This is even true of people who have been caught, because they know they got away with an awful lot of crimes before they got caught.

“You can arrest a lot of men for drugs, you can put a lot of them in prison, and you will not reduce the drug activity in that neighborhood, and you will not reduce the interest in drug activity in that neighborhood.”

It is unrealistic to think that we will increase the risk of criminal activity substantially. We do drug sweeps, just drive up and down the streets of these neighborhoods and just arrest people. In New York they do random pat-downs of young black men. We do all kinds of things to try and communicate that the law has power, and it hasn’t had much deterrent impact.

Turns out there is research now, and I think it’s pretty credible, that once you have a person in the criminal justice system, once you have a person identified, threats of short sanctions, two weeks that are carried out very systematically so that once there’s a problem, immediately respond with a very short sanction, these do shape behavior substantially.

So it’s not like we can’t use incarceration at all; [it’s] that we so overestimate its impact. Very small doses used for very specific populations, with messaging about the uses, seem to have an impact on reducing criminal activity by those for whom it is targeted. A wide, broad, kind of if-you-do-the-crime-you-will-do-the-time, zero impact.

I want to talk a bit about re-entry. … Everyone we have spoken to feels like they are being punished again and again and again. … You’ve done a crime; you’ve done the time; can’t you just make a go of it there?

When we built this large prison system, we bracketed it with enormous surveillance, community surveillance activities on each end.

On the probation side, we built a surveillance and rule structure that almost really nobody could abide by satisfactorily 100 percent of the time. … If I have 100 percent surveillance capacity, I’m going to find problems, and then I’m going to have to respond to them.

On the post-prison side, all supervision, we’ve done the exact same thing. But it isn’t just the surveillance. We now watch people more closely, have more contact with them.

But it’s also the rules we put on, and it’s also the limitations that we put on. So there are whole sections of cities where people convicted of certain crimes can’t live because the rules restrict them from living there.

So we’ve created, for example among people convicted of sexual crimes, we’ve created sex offender ghettos, where in entire cities there’s a very small section. That’s not how people live. People live all over the place. What that means is every one of those living outside of that committed ghetto is violating the law.

For most people in the community who have gone through the prison system, there is a relative who has also gone through the prison system. We say, “You can’t talk to that relative.” I can’t even imagine saying, “We just sent you to prison, and we want you to succeed, but the one thing you can’t do is talk to any of your family members.” It just doesn’t make any sense. You can’t engage your support system to try to get help.

In New York there are 250 job restrictions on people who have been in prison. Public housing is denied to family members of people who have drug-related offences.

These stories go on and on and on, and every single one of them is built around this idea that if we make committing a crime so problematic, people will decide not to do it. But almost all of this — really, actually all of it — is being imposed after the crime has been committed and found. So it’s sort of closing the door after the horse has left the barn.

It’s all so self-destructive. Everything you do to make it harder for a person to make it once that person’s been in prison is increasing the chances that you’re going to return that person to prison. And prison return rates in the United States are over half.

The reason that that’s true is most of it’s not new crimes. Most of it is failure to abide by the rules that are imposed on people who have just been released from prison. That’s a complicated story. There are new crimes in there. Some of the rule breaking involves some substance use. There are risk indicators.

The story’s very complicated, but the broad version of the story is that we have put so much pressure on people who have been released from prison. In the state of New Jersey, where I work, a lot of people elect not to go out on parole. They just wait until their release date because they don’t want to be faced with all those pressures.

The grand prison experiment, let’s call it, over the last few decades: Has it worked? Has it failed?

One of the ways of looking at crime policy in the United States is that in the last 40 years, we have conducted a social experiment of enormous magnitude. We’ve decided that the main mechanism we’re going to use for dealing with crime rates is the prison. …

What have we learned in 40 years? … We’ve invested in prisons and we’ve got the same crime rate, so it sounds like the answer to that question is pretty straightforward. It has failed. …

I also want to say that the idea that the growth in prison would make the community feel safer has not panned out. At the time when we had rising incarceration rates and dropping crime rates, public opinion about safety was getting less positive. People felt less safe.

There was an awful lot of media attention to crime. Every news story led off with a crime story even though crime rates were dropping. And what happened was we were spending large amounts of money on prison, and we were feeling less secure about our public safety. …

I think there is a general sense right now that we have built a beast that has to be unbuilt, and people are trying to figure out how we do it. … For criminologists who have been doing this for over 35 years, it is an exciting time, because the conversation has changed.

… In Kentucky, there have been various legislative attempts to bring prison numbers down. … Talk to me about the obstacles. … It’s not straightforward. We can’t just go back to the sentencing laws of 1972, or can we?

The math about mass incarceration is really interesting, because we’ve tripled the likelihood of going to prison given that you’ve been convicted of a felony, and we’ve doubled the length of stay once you go there. Well, no wonder we have more prisoners. We have more people going in, and we have them staying longer.

So the answer to the question “How do you reduce incarceration rates?” is contained right in that insight. You reduce the likelihood of going to prison, you have more, better alternatives to incarceration, and you reduce the length of stay.

A lot of places have thought about this length-of-stay issue by thinking about a cohort of people who are currently incarcerated and letting them go. But this is a recipe for political and programmatic disaster, because if you don’t do anything about the other two ideas, like rehabilitating and how long they should stay, you’re going to end up exactly back where you started, and you’ll have earned all the problems you’ve created.

Let me put it another way. If a state does not change any of the mechanisms that created its prison population, it identifies a bunch of people and lets them out all six months early, six months later it will be exactly back where it would have been if it had done nothing. And everything done by that cohort let out six months early will be owned by that policy.

California is going through this right now. It’s trying to decarcerate by 40,000 people. That’s larger than most prison populations in the United States. And it’s doing it by moving those people into the community.

Many are going to jail, but many also are going on probation. It’s learning that that sort of back-end, gerrymander, made-up policy where you quickly let a whole bunch of people out really doesn’t produce the solution. We have to change the system that we have built. The system we built watches people closely and puts a lot of them in prison and makes them stay longer.

Each of those three pieces has to be changed, and just letting a handful of people out early will bring your numbers down immediately, but if you don’t do those other things, you’re going to be right back where you were.

So why don’t we just change the factors that you say will make a difference?

The politics of this I think is changing, so the political right kind of gets it and had written a policy agenda — Newt Gingrich is one of the key writers of this — called Right on Crime, in which it begins thinking about drug laws. It begins thinking about mandatory sentencing laws. It begins thinking about these extremely long sentences. And it thinks also about programs. It’s also about these other things. But it really thinks about those mechanisms that have produced this. …

The Wall Street Journal had an editorial the other day, a few weeks ago actually, that the drug war has failed. And it had another editorial a couple of weeks ago saying mandatory sentences need to be eliminated.

These are editorials you could have put in The New York Times a few years ago. Now they’re appearing in The Wall Street Journal, so on the right the conversation is beginning to change. This will free up the ability for a broad conversation across the political spectrum.

You have people being elected mayor who have not run on crime platforms but are running on education platforms, on health care platforms, on civic reform platforms, and you get paid for that unless you do something about the big sort of fiscal beast in the room, which is incarceration.

So all the groundwork is being laid, but the big win hasn’t happened yet. And some sort of important political leader will come in and will lead us through a set of changes. Could be Gov. [Jerry] Brown in California. Probably not, but might be. And those changes will show other communities and political leaders that it is safe to do major reform here. And once that happens, it will happen quickly, because it turns out that it is in fact safe, that if you do it the right way, you don’t get spikes in crime rates. You actually get rapidly reducing prison populations without problematic spikes in the community-level crime rates.

One of the problems is our crime rates travel on their own. Crime will go up and go down on its own. It’s been going down for over a decade, for nearly 20 years.

That’s been a blessing, but if we reach a floor and we start releasing prisoners and we start reducing prison populations — I should say not just releasing but reducing those populations — the crime rate could go up or down on its own terms, having nothing to do with that and no sort of political consequences there.

So you feel like we’re at the beginning of an end of an era.

I very much do. Part of it is the fiscal pressure that the states and localities feel, but part of it is also that once the fiscal pressure gets released and we have a booming economy again, there’s other takers for that money.

My generation’s retiring health care costs are expanding. We’re not done reforming health care. The infrastructure is crumbling. If we don’t spend money on education, we are going to fall farther and farther behind the other countries that are investing in their new generation. All these things are legitimate and sensible public policy priorities that have not been able to compete with incarceration, but now we’ll be able to.

So I really believe that what we did for the last roughly 40 years has run its course. Now, how big the drop back will be, it will be interesting to see. Many of us are hopeful for a major reduction. If we implemented the sentencing laws of 1988 and did not put people in prison for possession of pot, we would very soon be back to the prison population levels of the early 1980s.

… In the neighborhood we’re working at in Louisville you have three or four generations now that have been very heavily incarcerated. You have an expectation of incarceration among children. Time and time again, we’ve seen parents who are having difficulty bringing up their teenagers, which we all experience, turning to the criminal justice system, turning to incarceration as an option, like “Fix my child.” It is their sole contact with the state. How entrenched do you think those challenges and attitudes are, and can they change?

I think having a smaller incarceration rate will have a small positive effect for these neighborhoods, but the consolidation of problems is so intense that incarceration by itself won’t resolve what’s going on here.

And it is not a short-term investment issue. I’ve been very impressed by the movement afoot for what’s called “justice reinvestment.” Justice reinvestment is the idea that you systematically reduce the prison population, and you take the savings and invest it in these communities that have these high prison rates and crime rates.

The jury is very much out on the implications of this idea, but it’s sensible to think that we’ve spent 40 years disinvesting in these places, [so] it’s not going to be a five-year investment strategy that we’re going to turn them around.

That said, there are within these neighborhoods quite impressive resources that can be unleashed to help them do their own monitoring and their own self-development. Once incarceration as a mainstay experience comes out of the picture, some of the power of those local resources might have a greater impact, and we might see some changes.

But incarceration by itself is not the answer for these neighborhoods. It’s part of a solution, but it’s not the only thing you need to do.

… Can you explain to me what role the war on drugs has played in filling up the prisons?

In the early 1980s, before the drug law reform started, the proportion of people in prison who were there for drug-related crime was under 10 percent. Today, after all these policies, in some systems it’s as high as a third, and because they serve shorter sentences, of entering cohorts of people going to prison, half of them are going to prison for drug-related crimes.

The irony is that you arrest somebody for a drug-related offense, you don’t do anything at all about the drug market. You destabilize it, and you create the possibility that somebody else who might not have been able to be involved in that drug market now can be. There is an almost inexhaustible supply of young men in these neighborhoods who can be tapped for the drug market and who can be arrested and involved in the criminal justice system for the rest of their involvement in the drug market.

The idea that we will move some proportion of them into prison and things will get better as a result is one of the most tested ideas of the great punishment experiment. The answer to that question is undeniably no.

You can arrest a lot of men for drugs, you can put a lot of them in prison, and you will not reduce the drug activity in that neighborhood, and you will not reduce the interest in drug activity in that neighborhood. …

[What about] the thesis that high enough doses of incarceration risk increasing crime rather than decreasing it? …

There are a handful of studies, and they seem to consistently show the same thing, that once the number of people being locked up from a neighborhood increases to a certain point, the instability caused by that flow leads to higher crime rates.

You have to understand it this way. Very few of those people are going out of the neighborhood and never coming back, so these neighborhoods get a double whammy. When a person is removed from the neighborhood, from the families and from the relationships that that person had and is sent to prison, the neighborhood has to absorb that loss, find a way for making up for what that person contributed. And when a person comes back, they have to figure out a way of absorbing him back.

In these neighborhoods, they have high rates of people leaving and high rates of people returning, and both of those mechanisms make it harder for those neighborhoods to stay stable, safe places.

And what we’re finding is that as the number reaches a certain point, it’s a pretty clear statistical relationship that instead of going down, crime starts to go up.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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FRONTLINE has built a unique public record, in documentary format, of the former president’s impact on American life, politics and democracy — and his previous battles with a special counsel and the Department of Justice.
November 16, 2022
How American Politics Reached This Fraught Moment: 12 Documentaries to Watch Ahead of the Midterms
As a divided America prepares to vote and fears of political violence continue, these FRONTLINE documentaries show how U.S. politics reached this moment.
November 4, 2022
How Russian Soldiers Ran a "Cleansing" Operation in Bucha
"I’ve already killed so many civilians,” a Russian soldier told his wife from Bucha, Ukraine. The Associated Press and FRONTLINE obtained hundreds of hours of CCTV footage and intercepts of audio calls by Russian soldiers that show for the first time what a Russian "cleansing" operation looked like.
November 3, 2022
‘The Story Putin Doesn’t Want Told’: Filmmakers Talk About ‘Putin’s War at Home’ Documentary
Gesbeen Mohammad and Vasiliy Kolotilov talk about the making of the FRONTLINE documentary “Putin’s War at Home,” which tells the story of Russians defying their government's crackdown on critics of the war in Ukraine.
November 1, 2022