Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform
Written by John F. Pfaff, Basic Books, 2017. 320 pp.
The phrase "mass incarceration" reflects the widely-held view that the rate of incarceration in our country is excessive and not in our national interest. If the high rate of incarceration is a problem, and if we wish to solve this problem, then identifying the cause or causes of high rates of incarceration is a critical first step toward finding solutions.
"Locked In," by John Pfaff, is a highly controversial book because it directly takes on widely accepted explanations of our nation's recent history of rapid and steady increases in rates of incarceration. He describes these explanations and then critiques them. Pfaff is an economist and professor at Fordham University School of Law whose areas of expertise bridge law, the social sciences and economics. His writing is heavily footnoted and relies extensively on statistical analysis, yet his prose is a pleasure to read.
Pfaff takes the position that our erroneous views of the causes of mass incarceration are leading us to rely on solutions which are destined to prove ineffective. He references a "standard story," the explanations for rising incarceration rates found most notably in Michelle Alexander's 2010 best-seller "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," and also in the National Research Council's 2014 report "The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences." It may be of particular interest to corrections professionals that Pfaff describes the influence of private corrections on criminal justice policy as largely a myth, while simultaneously suggesting that there are a variety of financial interests supporting pro-incarceration policies within the public sector. This is a nuanced discussion well worth considering.
Pfaff presents overlooked or under-appreciated causes of mass incarceration as alternatives to the causes he refutes or minimizes. Prominent among his alternative explanations of causes is the recent history of the prosecutor in the criminal justice system. He cites changes in their number, their influence and their behaviors. His discussion of the role played by prosecutors is extensive and multi-faceted, among the most fully developed topics in this book. He notes their expanding ranks coinciding with a period of decreasing crime rates. He also cites a parallel decline in...