A Few Unanswered Points

Prison isn’t cheap, but the alternative of not having it is much more expensive. Western’s argument is that crime is high despite the level punishment and so obviously prison doesn’t matter. What he doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that things can be much worse. A city with a murder rate of 25 per 100,000 people can find itself with a murder rate of 50. By the way, if Western is interested, my book More Guns, Less Crime actually shows that the deterrent effect of the legal system is greatest in the high-crime urban areas.

Despite Western’s comments, both retribution and anger can be rationally based. Values can exist for a reason.

Here are some of the points on which there haven’t been responses from Loury and Western.

– When one looks at the total penalty system, criminal penalties are extremely progressive. Western has now raised the importance of reputational penalties, but he won’t discuss or recognize what that implies for the progressivity of overall penalties. Fines and restitution are also much higher for higher-income criminals. If overall penalties are extremely progressive as the reputational data suggests, it must be dealt with in any discussion of “fairness.”

– Everyone agrees that there is a serious tragedy of black committing crimes at high rates and that that crime is overwhelmingly committed against black victims. The notion that a Rawlsean “veil of ignorance” argument would imply special treatment for black criminals doesn’t fly if we also care about black victims.

– The mislabeled “unexplained prison gap” raised by Western is more consistent with a system that is racist against whites than blacks, though that the penalty system appears to be becoming less racist against whites over time.

– Except for saying that I have somehow misinterpreted his book, Loury offers no alternative explanation for what he meant when he asked if we should “apportion blame and affix responsibility for the cultural and social pathologies evident in some quarters of our society.” When I read this in connection with setting penalties it suggests to me that blacks should face lower penalties than whites for the same crime. Loury disagrees but offers no alternative suggestion for what he meant.


Lott, John R., Jr., More Guns, Less Crime: Analyzing Crime and Gun Control Laws, Second edition. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Illinois (2000).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Brown University’s Glenn Loury, author of Race, Incarceration, and American Values, points out that the United States imprisons more of its population than any country on the planet. America’s incaceration policies, Loury observes, fall disproportionately on black men. Loury is disturbed that we seem rarely to consider whether these policies make sense. He argues that they do not make sense, but that “the racially disparate incidence of punishment in the United States is a morally troubling residual effect of the nation’s history of enslavement, disenfranchisement, segregation, and discrimination.” Loury contends that the American ethos of individual responsibility has largely blinded us to the fact that “society at large is implicated in [the criminal’s] choices because we have acquiesced in structural arrangements which work to our benefit and his detriment.” Loury concludes: “What the brutal facts about punishment in today’s America show is that [the] American project of civic inclusion remains incomplete.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply to this month’s lead essay, the University of Maryland’s John R. Lott, Jr. criticizes Loury for a selective presentation of facts about race and the American criminal justice system. Lott points out that blacks are the primary victims of crimes committed by other blacks. “If we punish black criminals a lot, isn’t it possible that the reason we are doing it is because we care about the black victims?” he asks. Lott argues that while the United States does have the world’s highest rates of incarceration, the evidence shows that the policies behind this fact have been effective in deterring crime. Additionally, Lott maintains that there is little evidence that other criminal penalties disproportionately burden blacks or the poor, and that well-intended policies meant to bring more blacks into law enforcement have actually increased crime rates in minority areas by lowering the average quality of new police recruits of all backgrounds.

  • James Q. Wilson sympathizes with Glenn Loury’s “impassioned cry from the heart,” yet ultimately finds that it comes up short in substance. A more programmatic approach is in order, he argues. Although imprisonment has costs, it also has benefits, including decreased risk from several types of crimes. Yet programs that attempt to reduce criminality and recidivism must start outside the penal system and address broken families, neighborhoods, and educational systems.

  • Harvard sociologist Bruce Western, author of Punishment and Inequality in America argues that although the growth of mass imprisonment in recent years has caused a modest reduction in crime, this reduction may not have been worth the costs. Not only did we spend billions on new prisons, we interrupted millions of lives and families. We lost the economic output of prisoners and alienated them from society at large. We further ran the risk of recidivism, because past imprisonment is strongly associated with future crime. Western characterizes the public safety provided by mass imprisonment as “short-term, expensive, and vulnerable to reversal.” Worse, there are other ways to reduce crime that do not rely on imprisonment. Today’s state legislators and governors are no longer as invested in the prison system and do not see more prisons as the solution to social ills, and this, to him, is a welcome development.