Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) is complaining again that the United States is not jailing enough of its citizens, tweeting on Tuesday: “We have a major under-incarceration problem in America.”
“And it’s only getting worse,” Cotton added.
Linked to the tweet was a CNN article reporting on an increase in violent crime in U.S. cities.
Major American cities saw a 33% increase in homicides last year as a pandemic swept across the country, millions of people joined protests against racial injustice and police brutality, and the economy collapsed under the weight of the pandemic — a crime surge that has continued into the first quarter of this year.
Sixty-three of the 66 largest police jurisdictions saw increases in at least one category of violent crimes in 2020, which include homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, according to a report produced by the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Baltimore City, Baltimore County and Raleigh, North Carolina, did not report increases in any of the violent crime categories.
But Cotton’s thoughts on incarceration long predate this increase.
The Arkansas senator has been calling for putting more people in jail for several years, as Vox noted in 2019 after Cotton opposed the First Step Act signed into law by former President Donald Trump.
The First Step Act, which passed with overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats, takes modest steps to alter the federal criminal justice system and ease very punitive prison sentences at the federal level. It affects only the federal system — which, with about 181,000 imprisoned people, holds a small but significant fraction of the US jail and prison population of 2.1 million.
That doesn’t mean the law skated by without opposition. Some Senate Republicans, led by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, took issue with the mild reforms in the First Step Act, even as Republican senators like Chuck Grassley (IA) and Lindsey Graham (SC) came on board.
[Cotton] has long opposed criminal justice reform. He’s argued that America has an “under-incarceration problem,” even though the US has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. From his view, stiffer prison penalties deter crime, keeping Americans safe.
This goes against the empirical evidence on the topic, which has consistently found that more incarceration and longer prison sentences do little to combat crime. A 2015 review of the research by the Brennan Center for Justice estimated that more incarceration — and its abilities to incapacitate or deter criminals — explained about zero to 7 percent of the crime drop since the 1990s, though other researchers estimate it drove 10 to 25 percent of the crime drop since the ’90s.
Another huge review of the research, released in 2017 by David Roodman of the Open Philanthropy Project, found that releasing people from prison earlier doesn’t lead to more crime, and that holding people in prison longer may actually increase crime.
Cotton’s home state of Arkansas continues to land in the top several states in terms of incarceration rates.
According to the Sentencing Project, Arkansas has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the U.S., imprisoning 586 people per 100,000 residents.
The U.S. on the whole continues to jail more people than any other country:
There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years. Changes in law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. The results are overcrowding in prisons and fiscal burdens on states, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety.
Image credit: Screengrab / @usatodayDC / Twitter