Whether as a result of low crime rates, the financial pressures of the 2008 credit crunch, or other factors, policymakers on both sides of the aisle are trying to rein or even reduce the US incarceration rate after an unprecedented forty-year expansion. Unfortunately, reforms are hampered by the fact that we do not have a solid empirical understanding of what caused the explosion in the first place. In fact, the “Standard Story” of prison growth generally overemphasizes less important factors and overlooks more important ones. This essay thus does two things. First, it points out the flaws in five key aspects of the Standard Story: its argument that the War on Drugs is of central importance, that trends in violent and property crimes are relatively unimportant, that longer sentence lengths drive growth, that the “criminal justice system” is a fairly coherent entity advancing specific goals, and that the “politics of crime control” is uniquely dysfunctional. And second, it argues that an increased willingness of the part of prosecutors to file charges—a causal factor almost completely overlooked by the Standard Story—is likely the most important force behind prison growth, at least for the past two decades.
- © 2014 Vera Institute of Justice