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How Does Prison Gerrymandering Work?

Stashed in: Politics!, Crime!, Freakonomics

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It works poorly.

Mandatory minimums went viral. “The Rockefeller drug laws sailed through New York's Legislature,” Brian Mann reported for NPR. “Other states started adopting mandatory minimum and three-strikes laws — and so did the federal government.” Tough on crime was a decades-long, bipartisan effort. Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton’s championing of Bill Clinton’s Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 still haunts their careers. 

These laws set America down the path to mass incarceration. They are responsible for the famous statistic that Americans represent only 5% of the world’s population but 25% of its inmates. Even though whites and blacks use drugs at roughly equal rates, they also packed new prisons mostly with people of color

Today an increasing number of politicians recognize that tough on crime laws were a mistake—or claim that they are no longer necessary as crime rates have plummeted nationwide. This past summer, Republicans and Democrats in Congress collaborated on criminal-justice reform bills that reduce mandatory minimums and give judges more discretion in sentencing. The rare bipartisan effort, combined with Republican candidates calling for reform during presidential debates, has led to a sense that the tide is turning against mass incarceration. 

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