After a long and dispiriting day inspecting prisons, I reluctantly filled an obligation to attend a dinner party. After learning how I had spent my day, several of the guests went on at length about what prisons were like, who was in them, and what should be done about it. Almost everything the guests confidently asserted was factually wrong and dubiously sourced: I hadn't heard so much discussion of Oz since that girl from Kansas and her dog went over the rainbow.
The people at that dinner party were not unusual in believing many myths about prisons. Movies, sensationalized news stories and spin-filled op-eds are the primary sources of information about prison for those Americans who haven't had the misfortunate to serve time in one. As a result, many - probably even most - Americans believe one or more of the following myths:
Myth #1: The prison population is growing every year.
The number of people in prison rose for over 30 years straight beginning in the mid-to-late 1970s. However, in 2012 the size of the population declined for the third year in a row. This reversal of the historical trend seems likely to continue as policy makers across the political spectrum have become convinced that fewer Americans should be behind bars. The historic drop in crime rate has also been a factor, because it increases the public's willingness to support sentencing reform. Those are key reasons why the prison admission rate in 2012 was at a two-decade low.
Myth #2: If you reduce the size of the prison population, crime invariably goes up.
The ten states that reduced their prison populations the most from 2008-2012 were California , Hawaii, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Colorado, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Nevada. None of them experienced a rise in crime. Indeed on average the crime rate dropped by 12% in these de-incarcerating states.
Like any policy, de-incarceration can be implemented ineptly, for example by releasing large numbers of violent offenders into the community with no monitoring and no supportive services. But the experience of recent years shows that the holy grail of declining prison populations and declining crime rates is possible to reach.
Myth #3: If marijuana legalization goes national, the prison population will shrink dramatically.Even before the dramatic decrease in marijuana law enforcement of recent years it was extremely rare for someone to end up in state or federal prison for a marijuana-related offense. To quote from the drug policy analysis classic Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know:
Less than 1 percent of state and federal inmates are serving time for marijuana possession alone - and in many of those cases, the possession conviction was the result of a plea bargain involving more serious charges.
Also, marijuana legalization proposals tend to include new stiff criminal penalties for selling to minors and driving while impaired, which could certainly result in as many people going to prison under legalization and do now under marijuana prohibition. Wherever the country ends up on the question of marijuana legalization will thus make little or no difference to the size of our prison population.
Myth #4: African-Americans compose an increasing share of the prison population.
Here's a strangely underreported fact: The rate of incarceration of black Americans has been falling for a decade. Specifically, from 2000 to 2009 the rate for black men fell by 9.8% and the rate for black women fell by an even more remarkable 30.7%. African-Americans remain heavily overrepresented in the prison population relative to whites, but the gap has been closing rather than increasing.
Crimes by African-Americans tend to draw outsized media attention. It's a pity this positive story of reduced African-American incarceration hasn't been more widely celebrated.
Myth #5: Recent reforms proposed by members of Congress and the attorney general will dramatically change the U.S. prison system.
Under the federalist system of the U.S., prisons are primarily operated by states. As a result, recent worthy reforms proposed in Washington regarding expanding compassionate release and reducing use of mandatory minimum sentences will have less impact than many people realize because they apply to the federal prison system. That system is definitely worth reforming, but it only holds 6% of U.S. prisoners. What states like Texas, California and Florida do regarding prisons will affect our country much more than what happens in Washington D.C.
Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a former senior policy advisor in the White House Office of National Drug Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @KeithNHumphreys.