Five myths about prisons

5 widely circulated myths about prisons:

* U.S. prisons are full of nonviolent drug offenders;

* private prisons drive mass incarceration;

* long sentences are causing our prison population to age;

* recidivists and career criminals are pretty much the same group;

* not sending someone to prison saves $35,000 a year.

Fordham’s John Pfaff explains what’s wrong with each assertion. [Charleston Post and Courier via Washington Post]


  • From the linked article:

    But the simple truth is that, at a minimum, 55 percent of those in state prison have been convicted of a violent crime

    But of course that means that 45% of state prisoners have not been convicted of violent crimes and it completely ignores federal prisoners.

    So “U.S. prisons are full of nonviolent drug offenders” is certainly exaggerated, but not by so much that you can reasonably call it a myth.

  • Overall, this article does nothing to advance anyone’s cause. It is entirely unpersuasive and does nothing to show that there are “myths”. I am not saying that I don’t believe Pfaff might be correct, just that the way he argues is not persuasive.

    Point one is Pfaff talking past himself. AOC says that the majority of people locked up are non-violent. Pfaff says, wait a second, only 15% of those in prison are in there for drug crimes. AOC may be including jails (which, in my experience, is the place of incarceration for sentences of less than a year and where pre-trial defendants are housed). So they might both be correct.

    Point two is simply unpersuasive. AOC says there is a causation. Pfaff says no there is not, but only cites some statistics. IMO, neither really makes the point well.

    Point three is the same as point one. Pfaff does not dispute that longer sentences are causing the prison population to age. He just points out that older people commit crimes, too, and comprise a significan part of the prison population. What AOC says is that reducing the length of sentences will reduce the number of old people in prison. Pfaff does nothing to dispute the point.

    Point four is puffery. Basically Pfaff is saying “you are wrong,” without providing any basis for his opinion.

    Pfaff’s fifth point sounds right. But he agrees that incarcerating fewer people could save money–if we do it right.