The 2020 Candidates Still Won’t Talk About the Main Cause of Mass Incarceration


Professor John Pfaff was consulted in a Huffingtonpost Politics article about the role violent crime plays in mass incarceration and the lack of attention it’s received by the 2020 presidential candidates.

John Pfaff, author of “Locked In” and professor at Fordham Law School, believes these attitudes are intertwined.

“It’s because we believe that everyone’s in prison for drugs that we don’t have to ask these hard questions of violence,” he said. “Politicians are afraid to talk about it. So they talk about drugs and that reinforces people’s belief that everyone’s there for drugs. It’s a hard cycle to snap out of.”

Pfaff commended Harris for noting the central role that violent crime plays in driving prison populations, but said he wished she’d gone further.

“It’s worth noting that she demands action now when it comes to how we handle drugs, but pushes the issue of violence to a commission ― even though we have the data to change how we approach violence now too,” he said.

Presidents have limited power to reform the criminal justice system writ large, as states and local districts set their own policies, said Pfaff, the Fordham professor. The federal government can wield some influence by offering grant money to states that adopt certain programs or policies, but ultimately, its impact is minimal.

What presidents can do is set the agenda, he said.

“Imagine if someone like Warren or Sanders or Biden got up and said, ‘Look, we need to talk about how we punish violence. We are harsh on it in a way that baffles Europeans, in a way that flies in the face of what we know about what deters behavior, and we do it in a brutal and inhumane way that is often counterproductive,’” he said. “That statement alone would do more than any 50-page policy would do.”

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