Professor John Pfaff’s important book on modern criminal justice systems in the United States, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration – and How to Achieve Real Reform, was published more than 2.5 years ago. But the data and themes covered in this book remain quite timely, as well evidenced by two new pieces published this week. The first is by Pfaff himself in Politico under the headline “What Democrats Get Wrong About Prison Reform.” A paragraph from the start of this piece provides highlights:
Drug crime is not what’s driving the high prison population in the United States. It’s crimes of violence. And this omission has consequences. It means that any “solution” is unlikely to achieve its intended goal and in the meantime society will continue to suffer long-term damage — physical, psychological and economic — from a persistent cycle of unaddressed violent crime.
The second is this much longer treatment of these important subjects in the Federalist Society Review under the title “Two Views on Criminal Justice Reform: The Author and a Critic on Locked In.” This document has two terrific pieces: (1) an “An Interview with Professor John Pfaff” curated by Vikrant Reddy, and (2) “Refreshing Candor, Useful Data, and a Dog’s Breakfast of Proposals: A Review of Locked In by John Pfaff” authored by Kent Scheidegger. Here is how Scheidegger’s review of Pfaff gets started:
John Pfaff gives us two books under one cover in Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform. In the first book, he tells us that nearly everything we have been told about so-called mass incarceration by his fellow “reform” advocates is false. His candor is a breath of fresh air. He convincingly makes the case with a mound of useful data.
The second book, in contrast, is thinly supported and heavily influenced by Pfaff’s predispositions. He tells us that high incarceration rates are caused primarily by overcharging prosecutors, though his data do not rule out alternative hypotheses. He claims that the election of tough prosecutors is caused by the “low-information, high salience electorate,” not by informed people who genuinely and justifiably disagree with him on priorities. The primary ingredients in his stew of solutions are tools to save the ignorant masses from themselves by making our society less democratic and our criminal justice decision-makers less responsible to the people. Other intriguing possibilities raised by his data go unexplored.
Pfaff does not define what he means by “reform,” but he appears to use that term for policies that have the single-minded purpose of reducing the number of people incarcerated. Obviously, that is not the sole or universally accepted meaning of the term in criminal justice. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 definitely did not have that purpose. In this review, I will put the word “reform” in quotation marks when used in Pfaff’s sense.