Has U.S. prison population quintupled because we’re overusing felony charges?

Has U.S. prison population quintupled because we’re overusing felony charges?

[Ed. – It is refreshing to see a discussion that doesn’t center on race.  But I’m not satisfied with this one.  Concluding that local prosecutors favor charging violent criminals with felonies is concluding that they’re doing the right thing, as far as I’m concerned.  Either you lock ’em up or I have to shoot ’em, bub.]

What appears to happen during this time—the years I look at are 1994 to 2008, just based on the data that’s available—is that the probability that a district attorneys file a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about 1 in 3, to 2 in 3. So over the course of the ’90s and 2000s, district attorneys just got much more aggressive in how they filed charges. Defendants who they would not have filed felony charges against before, they now are charging with felonies. I can’t tell you why they’re doing that. No one’s really got an answer to that yet. But it does seem that the number of felony cases filed shoots up very strongly, even as the number of arrests goes down. …

Well, the real growth in the prison population comes from county-level district attorneys sending violent people to prison. And there’s a lot to be said for nonprison approaches to a lot of people who are in prison for violent crimes. But that’s a political issue that we haven’t even begun to address, in part because it’s politically scary.

Where does that leave reformers who want to see the prison population drop significantly?

What makes it very hard is that the person we really need to target now—whose behavior we need to regulate—is the district attorney, and the district attorney is a very politically independent figure. He’s directly elected, and he’s directly elected at the county level. So there’s no big centralized fix. You can’t necessarily go to Washington and say, ‘Here’s the law that’s going to control what the DAs do,’ because they don’t have to listen to the federal government at all.  [And thank God for that. – Ed.]

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