Main Driver of Prison Growth is Prosecutors' Willingness to Charge Arrestees with Felonies
John Pfaff at the Monkey Cage:
"The fairly incoherent way we divide responsibility across cities (which run police departments), counties (which elect prosecutors and judges and pay for jails), and states (which fund prisons and whose governors control the parole process) leads to all sorts of moral hazard risks by haphazardly separating cost and benefits. My “favorite” example is that county-elected prosecutors face no limits on how many people they can send to state-funded prison. Prosecutors get all the tough-on-crime credibility from sending people to prison, but their counties bear none of the financial cost. In fact, it’s “cheaper” for county prosecutors to charge someone with a more-serious felony (which sends the defendant to state prison) than with a lesser misdemeanor (which lands the defendant in county-funded jail or probation). Electing prosecutors at the county level also creates a dangerous split in costs and benefits within the county, which helps explain racial disparities in punishment. In more-urban counties, the whiter, more suburban areas have a lot of political power, and they likely play an outsized role in electing the prosecutor, who in turn tends to enforce the law in poorer, more minority urban areas. Those suburbanites feel the benefits of reduced crime but few if any of the costs, which are borne by a population that they are divorced from socially, culturally, economically and geographically, in no small part because of our history of red-lining and other forms of racial exclusion. We should accordingly expect prosecutors to pay too little attention to the costs of aggressive enforcement. …
"At least since crime and arrests started to drop in the early 1990s, the main engine driving prison growth has been an increased willingness on the part of prosecutors to charge more and more arrestees with felony charges. … Between the early 1970s and 1990, as crime rose steadily, the number of prosecutors rose from 17,000 to 20,000; between 1990 and 2008, as crime dropped, we expanded the number of prosecutors by three times as much, to 30,000. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that individual prosecutors are more aggressive today than in the 1990s or even 1970s. We just have a lot more of them who need to justify their positions."
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