The US prison population hit a record 1.62 million in 2009, and there's a widely accepted explanation for that: the war on drugs. But law professor John Pfaff is proposing a very different explanation, and he explains it in an interview with Leon Neyfakh at Slate. Only 17% of inmates in state prisons are being held "primarily for drug charges," he says. In fact, "if you released every person in prison on a drug charge today, our state prison population would drop from about 1.5 million to 1.2 million. So we’d still be the world’s largest incarcerating country." The issue is actually a little more complicated, he suggests.
Between 1975 and 1991, there was a "dramatic" crime surge, which explains an increasing prison population during those years, Pfaff suggests. In the ensuing years, even as crime went down, he argues, the changing habits of district attorneys may explain the growing number of people in prison. Between 1994 and 2008, "the probability that a district attorney files a felony charge against an arrestee goes from about one in three to two in three," Pfaff says. He's not sure why yet, but he says the distinction is important if we're going to address the issue of prison population. "If we’re trying to reduce the prison population, we want to make sure we do it correctly—and if you focus on the wrong thing"—by, for instance, simply decriminalizing drugs—"you won’t solve the problem." Instead, we need to focus on regulating the actions of DAs, he says, and that's tough to do. Click for the full interview. (Read more prison stories.)