Why the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and what can be done to address the problem.
Pfaff (Fordham Law School; Sentencing Law and Policy, 2015) challenges the commonly held belief that American prisons are filled with low-level drug offenders as a result of the war on drugs. What is not in dispute is that the U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of its prisoners. With a formidable array of statistics, cited in the dense text and often also shown in chart and tabular form, the author examines crimes rates and incarceration rates, giving a useful picture of the prison population over time. Surprisingly, a very small percentage of state prisoners are serving time for nonviolent drug offenses, while more than half are in for violent crimes. From his extensive research, Pfaff asserts that a significant cause of the rise in prison growth are rising admissions, and he points to the increasing rate at which prosecutors filed felony charges against arrestees during years when both crime rates and arrests fell. He proposes several approaches to regulating tough, aggressive prosecutors, whom he calls the engines driving mass incarceration, among them adequately funding public defenders, establishing charging and plea bargaining guidelines, appointing rather than electing prosecutors, and establishing sentencing commissions. If there is a take-home message from Pfaff’s book, it is that the problem of mass incarceration is massive and complicated, that it is a state rather than federal problem, that solutions must come from state and county governments, and that they involve changing public attitudes about balancing the costs of crime and the costs of punishment.
A thorough and demanding examination of a problem that has no easy solutions and a challenge to policymakers to discard prior notions about the nature of the problem and the needed reforms.