Releasing People From Prison Is Easier Said Than Done

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Professor John Pfaff was quoted in an article in The Atlantic about the release of prison inmates during the coronavirus pandemic and the larger narrative about mass incarceration.

John Pfaff, a law professor at Fordham University and the author of Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, notes that in this economy, we could see an uptick in crime. “People would say: ‘Bob was released early from jail and he went off and committed this robbery,’” he says. “And the real reason for the robbery is that Bob got released early and there were no jobs; therefore, he committed the robbery. But if you’re a police chief or a [district attorney], it’s very easy to turn the economic-driven crime into criminal-justice-reform-driven crimes.”

Since the dawn of the tough-on-crime era, people convicted of violent and even some nonviolent crimes have received ever-longer sentences. This is not because Americans have become more savage; in fact, rates of violent crime have fallen by 50 percent since the early 1990s. But even as street violence has been quelled, time served in prison for homicide and non-negligent manslaughter has tripled, and one out of seven inmates will be in prison for life. New offenders arrive and old offenders take years to leave; prison is like a dam with no outlet, and today the reservoir is flooding its banks.

This unforgiving policy has an emotional appeal to voters, perhaps, but defies logic based on statistics. “Why should we lock someone up for 50 years?” Pfaff asks. No other Western country does that, he says, and the social science is “unambiguously clear” that people age into and out of violent behavior. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, homicide arrests peak at age 19; arrests for forcible rape peak at 18. “A 50- or 60-year-old person is just not the violent person that they were when they were 20,” Pfaff says.

Even with the threat of a deadly virus, so far governors have drawn the line at violence. “Governors are making a very calculating decision that it’s probably better for them politically for 10 men to preventively die in prison from COVID than for one of them to do something wrong if he’s released early,” says Fordham’s John Pfaff. “We don’t view these deaths as all that problematic.”

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