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The New Yorker: Why Do We Lock-Up So Many People?…& Other Must Reads

Most Americans honestly don’t want to spend much time,
energy or emotion thinking about people in jail or prison—unless, by chance they have a family member who is locked up.

We harp on the issue here at WitnessLA since criminal justice is, after all, central to the mission of the site. But if the topic comes up in a social setting, I see eyes starting to glaze over, even among friends who try to be interested.

That’s why the article by Adam Gopnick in the current New Yorker, The Caging of America, is so heartening.

Gopnick is a critic and commentator with no particular expertise in criminal justice matters. But he’s also a very smart guy and clear headed thinker. Somehow the topic grabbed his interest, and he dove deeply.

The result is part think piece, part book review. (He examines the new book by Berkeley criminologist, Frank Zimring, The City that Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control.)

In any case, it shouldn’t be missed.

I won’t try to summarize Gopnick’s work here. The essay is carefully crafted, thought by thought, and should be read in it’s totality. But some clips will give you an idea of what he’s on about.

To wit:

The accelerating rate of incarceration over the past few decades is just as startling as the number of people jailed: in 1980, there were about two hundred and twenty people incarcerated for every hundred thousand Americans; by 2010, the number had more than tripled, to seven hundred and thirty-one. No other country even approaches that. In the past two decades, the money that states spend on prisons has risen at six times the rate of spending on higher education.

Conservatives and other law and order types insist that the nationwide 40 percent drop in crime we’ve seen in the past few years can be laid at the feet of all this incarcerating. But, as Gopnick, channeling Zimring, points out, that assumption falls apart when one looks at New York’s crime stats, which happen to be another 40 percent lower still than the rest of the nation—the lowest since 1900—while its incarceration rate, rather than rising, has also dropped precipitously.

One fact stands out. While the rest of the country, over the same twenty-year period, saw the growth in incarceration that led to our current astonishing numbers, New York, despite the Rockefeller drug laws, saw a marked decrease in its number of inmates. “New York City, in the midst of a dramatic reduction in crime, is locking up a much smaller number of people, and particularly of young people, than it was at the height of the crime wave,” Zimring observes. Whatever happened to make street crime fall, it had nothing to do with putting more men in prison. The logic is self-evident if we just transfer it to the realm of white-collar crime: we easily accept that there is no net sum of white-collar crime waiting to happen, no inscrutable generation of super-predators produced by Dewar’s-guzzling dads and scaly M.B.A. profs; if you stop an embezzlement scheme here on Third Avenue, another doesn’t naturally start in the next office building. White-collar crime happens through an intersection of pathology and opportunity; getting the S.E.C. busy ending the opportunity is a good way to limit the range of the pathology.

And still we go on locking people up at a ferocious clip—even though, in terms of our incarceration rates, we increasingly stand alone in the world.

To catch sharks and not dolphins, Zimring’s work suggests, we need to adjust the size of the holes in the nets—to make crimes that are the occasion for stop-and-frisks real crimes, not crimes like marijuana possession. When the New York City police stopped and frisked kids, the main goal was not to jail them for having pot but to get their fingerprints, so that they could be identified if they committed a more serious crime. But all over America the opposite happens: marijuana possession becomes the serious crime. The cost is so enormous, though, in lives ruined and money spent….

So how do we go about ending this plague of imprisoning? Gopnick suggests that we must start thinking and acting sanely—in a thousand small ways.

Epidemics seldom end with miracle cures. Most of the time in the history of medicine, the best way to end disease was to build a better sewer and get people to wash their hands. “Merely chipping away at the problem around the edges” is usually the very best thing to do with a problem; keep chipping away patiently and, eventually, you get to its heart. To read the literature on crime before it dropped is to see the same kind of dystopian despair we find in the new literature of punishment: we’d have to end poverty, or eradicate the ghettos, or declare war on the broken family, or the like, in order to end the crime wave. The truth is, a series of small actions and events ended up eliminating a problem that seemed to hang over everything. There was no miracle cure, just the intercession of a thousand smaller sanities. Ending sentencing for drug misdemeanors, decriminalizing marijuana, leaving judges free to use common sense (and, where possible, getting judges who are judges rather than politicians)—many small acts are possible that will help end the epidemic of imprisonment as they helped end the plague of crime….

Anyway, read the thing. It’s worth it.


In December of this past year, in an investigation co-published by the Washington Post, ProPublica reporters Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur found that, in the past ten years of presidential pardons, white criminals seeking pardons were nearly four times as likely to succeed as minorities pardon seekers. Black pardon seekers had the lowest chance of all.

Here’s a clip:

Current and former officials at the White House and Justice Department said they were surprised and dismayed by the racial disparities, which persist even when factors such as the type of crime and sentence are considered.

“I’m just astounded by those numbers,” said Roger Adams, who served as head of the Justice Department’s pardons office from 1998 to 2008. He said he could think of nothing in the office’s practices that would have skewed the recommendations. “I can recall several African Americans getting pardons.’’

The review of applications for pardons is conducted almost entirely in secret, with the government releasing scant information about those it rejects.

The facts uncovered by the reporters’ investigation caused the House Judiciary Committee to pose a series of probing questions to Attorney General Eric Holder about what he was doing to look into this issue.


This LA Times Column One story story by David Zucchino is dizzyingly painful to read, but also essential.

Here’s how it opens:

Elaine Riddick was a confused and frightened 14-year-old. She was poor and black, the daughter of alcoholic parents in a segregated North Carolina town. And she was pregnant after being raped by a man from her neighborhood.

Riddick’s miserable circumstances attracted the attention of social workers, who referred her case to the state’s Eugenics Board. In an office building in Raleigh, five men met to consider her fate — among them the state health director and a lawyer from the attorney general’s office.

Board members concluded that the girl was “feebleminded” and doomed to “promiscuity.” They recommended sterilization. Riddick’s illiterate grandmother, Maggie Woodard, known as “Miss Peaches,” marked an “X” on a consent form.

Hours after Riddick gave birth to a son in Edenton, N.C., on March 5, 1968, a doctor sliced through her fallopian tubes and cauterized them.

“They butchered me like a hog,” recalls Riddick, now a poised and determined woman of 57.

Between the years of 1929 and 1974, reports Zuccinno, close to 7,600 people were sterilized under orders from North Carolina’s Eugenics Board. Nearly 85% were women or girls, some as young as 10…

Read on.

Photo by Steve Liss for the New Yorker

1 Comment

  • Just from the excerpts, I can tell Gopnick is an ivory tower academic. Take his logic far enough and you can end all imprisonment by simply legalizing Everything.

    Just because X number of people are doing “something” doesn’t mean that “something” is “right”, “good”, or should be legal(ized).

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