Written By: Anton Sawyer
This article is part of an ongoing series where I break down courses offered at PragerU and expose some of the misdirection they're peddling. Each course is readily available to everyone (the free stuff). I would love to sign up for their complete online courses, so if you would like to see me go in-depth to one of their official courses, then please “buy a coffee”. I will use those funds to “advance my education” through the “prestigious” University that is Prager.
Debunking Courses Offered At PragerU Lesson 12—“Why Are So Many Americans In Prison?”
It’s hard to say this, but here goes: I’ve never seen PragerU say so much, yet provide so little in the way of helpful information. Though they do stay on topic (the topic being everyone in prison is utterly terrible and should remain there for the rest of their days), the lack of touching upon anything systemic is quite impressive; even for them. Without delving into any kind of legislation or looking at the fiscal motivators when it comes to prison reform, the entire video is predicated on using fear to keep all of the “bad people” locked away forever, all while avoiding the true culprits of the systemic problems like a leper. By the end of it all, I promise that PragerU will not remotely answer the question of “Why Are So Many Americans In Prison?”
In an attempt to maintain complete transparency, all research and statistical fact-checking for all articles can be found in the bibliography linked here.
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To keep things clear, all statements from the video will be in bold, while all my responses will be in italics.
“Why Are So Many Americans In Prison?”
Today’s presenter is Rafael Mangual, Deputy Director of Legal Policy, Manhattan Institute
Our prisons are crowded with people who shouldn’t be there, the victims of a racist justice system. This is the popular progressive narrative. But it’s wrong in every respect—dangerously wrong. The US does have a very large prison population—not because too many innocent people are incarcerated, but because too many people commit serious—usually violent—crimes. With rare exceptions, that’s why most people are imprisoned in America. Period. Full stop. Before presenting the facts, let me address these caveats: It’s unacceptable that any innocent person is behind bars. Punishment must always fit, not exceed, the crime. We should do everything we can to reduce the rates of recidivism—committing more crime after release. And finally, everyone in prison should be treated humanely.
In regards to innocent people being behind bars, I couldn’t agree more. Per the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), in a report released in early 2022, it was found that together, [our criminal justice system] holds almost 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the US territories. Thankfully, per the Innocent Project, a relatively low number of innocent prisoners are behind bars. The estimate is that 1% of the US prison population, approximately 20,000 people, are falsely convicted. Though the number may be low, even one is too many. As for the rest, I’ll wait to see the facts as he presents them.
But let’s not fool ourselves that our prisons are full of people who shouldn’t be there. That’s simply not the case. Let’s start with those convicted of drug offenses, the source of so much of the “mass incarceration” myth. While it’s true that about half of federal prisoners are incarcerated on drug charges, federal inmates constitute only about 12% of the American prison population. Almost 9 of every 10 prison inmates are in state facilities. And very few of them—less than 15%—are there for drug-related offenses. Four times that number are behind bars for one of the following serious crimes: Murder—14%, Rape or sexual assault—13%, Robbery—13%, Aggravated or simple assault—11%, and burglary—9%. In short, violent criminals make up the clear majority of the state prison population. What’s more, drug offenders who do end up in prison don’t actually serve much time—almost half are released within a year.
Great way to not reveal a source. Regardless, assuming those numbers are correct, it’s using technicalities of verbiage. As having been through the US judicial system, you have to take a closer look when it comes to the numbers a little further. If drugs are the only or primary offense, it’s going to read as that specifically. If a murder occurs, and the person was high on drugs or was carrying drugs, you may see an additional charge, but in a statistical sense, he’s using the information that presents the major charge attached. Also, every one of the other crimes he mentioned still came in at less of a percentage base than drug-related charges which are somewhat confusing. If you add ALL of them together, then yes, they will be much higher.
As far as those who don’t serve much time, you have to consider that drug possession charges, which will carry a shorter term than sales/distribution charges, are much larger by contrast. Per Pew Research, in 2021 drug possession arrests held steady at more than a million a year, in stark contrast with a large reduction in overall arrests, which dropped 29%. This means that though overall arrests were down, the overwhelming amount of possession arrests didn’t change at all. This means a larger percentage of those convicted on drug arrests will be for possession alone—thereby carrying a shorter term due to its severity. It’s shading the facts a little.
The truth is that most criminals probably spend less time in prison than you think—even for the most violent crimes. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost 40% of released state prisoners served less than a year in prison. Even 20% of murderers and nearly 60% of those convicted of rape or sexual assault served less than five years in prison. What explains the short stays? Answer: plea bargaining.
I find it interesting that the conservative faction that runs PragerU would want to use the fact that rapists are getting out in record time, given it was a conservative judge named Aaron Persky who sentenced rapist Brock Turner to only six months in jail because the kid had a “bright future.” In related news, Judge Persky was recalled by voters due to this decision in 2018.
Most prosecutors never go to court. Instead, a deal is made between the defendant’s attorney and the prosecutor to avoid going to trial. These negotiations often involve the offender agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for a reduced sentence, or dropping or downgrading the most serious charges. As a result, a prisoner’s conviction record often understates the crime that landed him behind bars in the first place. For example, an armed burglar who, when arrested, was found to be in possession of illegal drugs might go to prison not for his worst crime—the armed burglary, but for a plea-bargained charge of say, trespass, and drug possession. But the media and the activists don’t tell us about this rather important detail. Instead, all we hear about is the poor fellow who’s serving time for “selling a small amount of cocaine.”
Wow, I almost got a broken neck from that swerve. Mangual started off this section with accurate information about how plea bargains work. Yet, he failed to mention that the reason these exist is that if EVERY single court case went to trial, it would grind our entire judicial system to a halt.
According to the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, “The overwhelming majority (90 to 95%) of cases result in plea bargaining.” If this didn’t occur, the numbers alone should give you a clear indication of how unleashing that dam could be so destructive to the system as it currently is.
Now, one of the benefits of these plea deals is that in many cases, the charges aren’t going to appear on a conviction sheet. We can argue whether those kinds of things should be allowed in a plea deal, or they should be overturned en masse, but if those details are erased in the big picture, then it’s not going to hold much weight. The rest is hyperbole. I don’t know of a criminal who was known to be guilty of robbery, but because they were given a lesser charge that the entirety of their indiscretions were completely forgotten. Usually, if someone has garnered celebrity-driven public attention because of a legal battle due to an infraction of some kind, there wasn’t a gross felony or two that got utterly ignored when the facts showed them to be realistic.
This assumes of course, that the convicted criminal does any time at all. Studies done by the Justice Department show that only about 40% of felony convictions lead to a prison sentence. Yes, many are given probation, sentenced to home confinement, or given credit for time served in pretrial detention. But most of the time, convicted criminals don’t go to prison.
One of the forgotten reasons as to why the 40% is so high—overpopulation. Due to overpopulation in both federal and state-run prisons, politicians have had to enact things like the First Step ACT. This was enacted in 2018 and is intended to do two things: cut unnecessarily long federal sentences and improve conditions in federal prison. Its sentencing reform components shorten federal prison sentences and give people additional chances to avoid mandatory minimum penalties by expanding a “safety valve” that allows a judge to impose a sentence lower than the statutory minimum in some cases. These parts of the First Step Act are almost automatic: once the act was signed, judges immediately began sentencing people to shorter prison terms in cases that came before them. Similarly, people in federal prison for pre-2010 crack cocaine offenses immediately became eligible to apply for resentencing to a shorter prison term.
Do we really want even more criminals out on the street? Activists say yes. Scholars at the left-leaning Brennan Center have called for an immediate 40% reduction in the number of inmates. CNN host Van Jones, founder of the #Cut50 initiative, tops that. He wants a 50% reduction. But if the activists get their way, the costs would be high—and would likely be paid by the most vulnerable. Most crimes are committed by a small fraction of the population who primarily victimize their own communities. Here’s an all-too-common example. In the spring of 2019, two men were charged with the murder of a Chicago woman who was shot while holding her baby. One of the men charged, according to the Chicago Tribune, had “nine felony convictions, including for a 2004 second-degree murder charge.” A January 2017 University of Chicago Crime Lab study found that, on average, someone arrested for a homicide or shooting in that city has nearly 12 prior arrests. Almost 20% had more than 20. If we cut prison rolls by 20, 40, or 50%, it won’t be politicians and media celebrities living in gated communities who will pay the price; it will be the law-abiding citizens in underserved neighborhoods struggling to get ahead who will pay. When it comes to debates about criminal justice policy, these people—not criminals—should come first. I’m Rafael Mangual, deputy director of legal policy at the Manhattan Institute, for Prager University—end credits.
You do realize that if you look at the murder rates of one of the most violent cities in America, it’s going to skew your results. That’s like using Wyoming as the test-subject state of example when looking at the LGBTQ+ trends of America. To get to the systemic issues of this catch-and-release as there seems to be in Chicago would be to look at the laws and how they pertain to this problem. In those cites’ cases, we’re not sure if the state of Illinois has a repeat-offender policy, or if those nine felonies were all unrelated somehow, and were therefore out of reach of such a policy for those in and out of the systems. Though I am not so intellectually obtuse as to think that prisoners who get out aren’t going to commit another crime while awaiting trial or the like, I disagree with PragerU in their assertions. To merely say that by refusing someone the right to freedom when they’ve paid their debt to society is a cure-all is completely un-American; we believe in redemption. What we need to do is look at the time-frames for criminal sentencing and other systemic issues.
Speaking of …
All of these problems go back to the systemic issue of overcrowding. Overcrowding is happening which is forcing the need to allow more of the prison population to be released. One of the reasons for overcrowding can be attributed to our prison system being for-profit. PPI also did a report on the economics of incarceration and found that in 2021, over 4,000 companies in the US profited from incarceration. To give you an idea, there are around only 3,000 Chick-fil-a’s nationwide as of 2021. This means there are more companies in America that are financially vested in keeping people in jail than there is the nation’s leading chicken sandwich restaurant chain.
When it comes to prison/sentencing reform, there are no easy answers. From our prison systems being overcrowded due to our for-profit prison systems due to the legislation allowing them to be for-profit due to …, it’s a snake of bureaucratic nonsense eating its own tail. I’m just hoping that someday soon we’ll get real leaders looking for answers that can make sense of it all, and then re-build the justice system into something that reasonably resembles something fair. But of course, I’m glad to see that PragerU has once again solved nothing in the span of five minutes all while giving their fervent followers the FEELING that they’ve solved A LOT in five minutes.
It’s been working well thus far …
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