Do Sessions Claims on Prison, Crime Ignore Research?

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Speaking in Texas at a conference on the anti-drug program DARE, Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited an Obama administration memo telling told federal prosecutors to avoid charges for low-level drug offenders that could trigger lengthy mandatory minimums. He argued that this memo caused violent crime to spike for the first time in decades and suggested that his decision to revoke the memo will, in turn, cause violent crime to fall, reports The result of the Obama action, Sessions said, was that “sentences went down and crime went up. Sentences for federal drug crimes dropped by 18 percent from 2009 to 2016. Violent crime — which had been decreasing for two decades — suddenly went up again.”

Vox says his claims ignore years of empirical research. Studies have found that harsher punishments and the higher incarceration rates they lead to don’t have a big impact on crime. A review by the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that more incarceration explained 0 to 7 percent of the crime drop since the 1990s, while other researchers estimate it drove 10 to 25 percent of the drop. A 2014 analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that states that reduced their imprisonment rates also saw some of the biggest drops in crime, suggesting that there isn’t a hard link between incarceration and crime. Longer stints in prison can lead to more crime. DOJ’s National Institute of Justice concluded last year that, “Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment. … Research has found evidence that prison can exacerbate, not reduce, recidivism. Prisons themselves may be schools for learning to commit crimes.” Harsh mandatory minimums for drug offenses don’t seem to have an impact on the flow of drugs. A 2014 study by Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland and Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago found there’s no good evidence that tougher punishments or harsher supply-elimination efforts do a better job of driving down access to drugs and substance abuse than do lighter penalties. . There’s a fundamental problem with the argument Sessions is making: The federal government doesn’t have much impact on crime.

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