In some policy areas, including health care, military affairs and the economy, the most consequential political decisions are made in the nation’s capital. But in the criminal justice system, states, cities and counties are the central players. For every federal law enforcement agent, about a half-dozen state highway patrol officers, county sheriffs and city police patrol the streets. Similarly, less than one-seventh of the country’s prison inmates are in federal facilities.
In addition to being small, the federal system also has an unrepresentative inmate population. Politicians, activists and major media outlets have pointed to federal prison statistics to argue that most people behind bars are nonviolent drug offenders. But such characterizations are misleading, because in the far larger state prison system, most offenders have violent convictions and less than 1 in 6 is serving time for a drug offense. Making a sizable dent in mass incarceration thus requires the shortening of sentences for violent crimes, a policy which currently has few defenders among elected officials or the public.
None of this is to say that Congress shouldn’t do its best to make the federal criminal code more fair, transparent and sensible. But whether the denizens of Capitol Hill succeed or fail in that quest, the path to reducing mass incarceration actually runs through all 50 state capitals.
Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.