DEBATE: Incarceration in America

Heather Mac Donald, Thaddeus Russell,

Release Date
October 5, 2017


Criminal Justice Government Justice Liberty

Why does America put so many people in jail? Is it because we have lots of guns? Lots of criminals? Or lots of laws turning nonviolent people into criminals? Watch this UNSAFE SPACE debate featuring Heather Mac Donald and Prof. Thaddeus Russell.
UNSAFE SPACE is a live show and podcast where comedians do standup on controversial topics, then have a discussion with experts and the audience. See more at UnsafeSpaceShow.comTo view the debate in its entirety, see the full episode here.

  1. 2016 Presidential Election: Criminal Justice Reform (video): Prof. Don Boudreaux explains the massive increases in incarceration in America over the last several decades.
  2. Why Is the U.S. Prison Population So Large? (video): Prof. Dan D’Amico describes how the U.S. came to imprison more people than any other country in the world.
  3. War On Drugs: What You NEED To Know About Mandatory Prison Sentences (video): Prof. Alex Kreit talks about the destructive consequences of our failed mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

THADDEUS RUSSELL: I got lots of water. I got too much water.
LOU: Everybody has two microphones on them right now, if anybody’s weirded out by that.
PETEY: I feel like a snitch wearing this mic.
TOBY: Oh yeah. We gave you the worst wire possible.
PETEY: Yeah. Thank you.
TOBY: Yeah. Awesome, well thank you so much for coming out everybody. I guess we’ll kick things off by just asking a basic question. Why do you think incarceration is so high in America?
THADDEUS: It’s hilarious.
TOBY: That’s just the set up.
HEATHER MAC DONALD: Well, for once, I would actually disagree with you.
LOU: Oh, talk into the mic.
HEATHER: Oh, you want me to … Sorry about that. It’s not the case that the United States has the same crime rates as other western industrialized countries. We have a lot of violent crime in this country compared to our peers. Our homicide rate is 7 times higher than the 21 European industrialized countries and Japan. And our gun homicide rate is 20 times higher. If you look at 15 to 24 year olds, it’s 43 times higher.
LOU: Do you think that’s a product of just good, old American work ethic?
HEATHER: Good old Remington selling all those bullets, the discounting getting them up.
TOBY: Do you think it’s the case that … and I’ve heard this argument … but maybe you’re a better judge at it than I am … that it’s similar rates of crime but that crime in America tends to be more violent because of the amount of guns that we have?
HEATHER: So, it’s not similar rates of crime. Again, Japan, Tokyo has zero homicides a year. That’s a city of much larger than New York City. We’re very proud because we’re down to 333. It used to be 2400. Maybe on property crimes we’re similar, but it is violent crime that drives the prison population. And we experimented with de-incarceration in the 60s and early 70s and we got rid of determinate sentencing and got a lot of community supervision. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s a great alternative, but violent crime rose 353% from 1960 to 1990s. There were a lot of people victimized by that.
PETEY: I think the jails are probably way more comfortable here than in Tokyo, so that has to … I don’t know if you guys have ever been to jail. It’s not that … It’s bad because you’re not free, but you get food and—
HEATHER: Movies.
PETEY: Clothing.
PETEY: Cable. Do you think it’s also because it’s a business?
HEATHER: No, I don’t think it’s a business.
HEATHER: Private prisons, I think that’s an exaggerated issue. I don’t think there’s that much-
PETEY: So you think it’s the guns?
HEATHER: Yeah, I think it’s the gun violence. We die in America at a higher rate.
LOU: Thad, you want to …
THADDEUS: No, I’m done.
LOU: You’re done?
THADDEUS: You’re going to have a lot of crime and a lot of criminals if you make a lot of things illegal. In this country, since the 19th century, we’ve made a lot of things illegal like prostitution, many forms of sex work, like drugs, like alcohol, for a time. So what happens when you make something illegal like that? Bad people come in to fill that market. It’s called a “black market.” So, we’ve had many, many black markets. Oh, I didn’t mention gambling. Gambling has been illegal in most states for more than 100 years. What you do when you make a black market is you force out all the people who aren’t violent bad guys from that market.
LOU: So you gentrify that market.
THADDEUS: No, you …
TOBY: I think it’s the opposite.
THADDEUS: I think it’s the other way around, Lou.
LOU: I’ll be here all night, just ruining excellent points.
THADDEUS: I’m just going to have to give you an F. No, that’s so the violent bad guys move in, right? And they take over that market. That’s exactly what’s happened for more than 100 years in this country. We are, as we all know, in many ways, and certainly historically, especially puritanical. We have, of course, our very anti-puritanical parts of our culture as well. But we have been … We were founded by puritans that part of our culture has been very strong for a long, long time. That’s why we had prohibition … That’s a major reason we did … and all of these other prohibitions. We are still living under prohibition, many, many prohibitions all at once and drugs is just one of them. That is why, I think, we have all of these bad, violent criminals shooting at people and have for a long, long time.
Now, what happened was, in this country, is that, for various reasons and in large part because we’re so puritanical, but because we think it’s so terrible to get high or sell sex, we built this massive system to put all those people away for a long, long time because we really, really, hate those things. Beginning in the early 20th century, we started building prisons all over this country, more than in any other country, and filling them. That accelerated in the late 20th century by the 60s and 70s, I don’t know what de-incarceration you’re thinking about, but if you look at the graph, incarceration, it’s always going up, if you look at the long history of America, but in the 60s and 70s, it spikes. It’s been spiking ever since then.
HEATHER: The idea that drug dealing is a non-violent crime is preposterous. People that live with open-air drug markets understand that they’re living under the constant implicit threat of violence. This February, on Valentine’s Day, an eleven year old girl, Takiya Holmes, was shot fatally in the head by a 19 year old marijuana dealer. As Toby mentioned, the idea that it’s drug prosecutions that are driving the prison population is completely wrong. The vast majority of people in prison today are there there for violent crimes or property crimes. Drugs make up 16% of the state prison population, which is where 88% of all prisoners are housed. Possession is only 4% of that and most of those have been pled down from trafficking.
THADDEUS: Heather’s right about a lot of things … And by the way, everyone should read her book because her book … Actually, I really do mean this … it disabused me of a lot of ideas I had about what was driving this stuff. If we were to eliminate all the racist cops from the police forces in this country tomorrow, we’d still be filling our prisons because we have these laws. 50% of violent criminals in prisons now, according to the FBI’s own statistics, are members of gangs.
Why do gangs exist in this country? Name one gang that wasn’t founded around the drug trade, the prostitution trade, gambling, illegal immigration, all of these prohibitions. If you eliminate those prohibitions, those gangs have no reason to exist and we eliminate 50% of the violent crime, according the the FBI’s own statistics.
HEATHER: Okay, let me respond to that…