Locked In

John Pfaff is here to tell you everything you know about mass incarceration is wrong.

In Locked In (Basic Books), the Fordham law professor takes a hard look at the prevailing narrative about America's unparalleled boom in incarceration, then compares it with the actual data underlying the spike. What he discovers goes against most of what the public has heard from criminal justice reform advocates, the media, and even former President Barack Obama.

The poster child for reform, the "first-time, nonviolent drug offender," is relatively insignificant as a factor in the increase in mass incarceration, he finds. Nonviolent drug offenders make up only 16 percent of the total state prison population. Lengthy mandatory minimum sentences also had a surprisingly small effect on prison populations. Instead, Pfaff points to unchecked aggressiveness from prosecutors, who sent more and more people to prison over the course of the 1990s even after crime rates began to sink.

Using a persuasive array of statistics, Pfaff shows the only way to make a real dent in the prison population will be to release large numbers of violent offenders. Because he is an academic instead of a politician, he has the freedom to ask uncomfortable questions, such as: Is a rise in crime an acceptable trade-off for decarceration? If, as many reformers believe, the tangible and intangible costs of mass incarceration are worse than the benefits of locking criminals away, then some increase in crime should be tolerable. But it is politically verboten to suggest such a thing, and even the reform movement couches its arguments in language like "reducing mass incarceration while making us safer."

With its probing questions about what we're willing to do in order to end America's addiction to locking people up, Pfaff's book is an essential read for anyone trying to understand crime and punishment in the United States.