President Obama paid a media-saturated visit in July to a federal penitentiary in Oklahoma. The cell blocks that he toured had been evacuated in anticipation of his arrival, but after talking to six prescreened inmates he drew some conclusions about the path to prison. “These are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made,” the president told the waiting journalists. The implication was that anyone who had smoked marijuana and tried cocaine (as Mr. Obama had) could land in a place like the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution.
The conceit was preposterous. It takes a lot more than marijuana or cocaine use to end up in federal prison. But the truth didn’t matter. Mr. Obama’s prison tour came amid the biggest delegitimation of law enforcement in recent memory. Activists, politicians and the media have spent the past year broadcasting a daily message that the criminal-justice system is biased against blacks and insanely draconian. The immediate trigger for this movement, known as Black Lives Matter, was a series of highly publicized deaths of black males at the hands of the police. But the movement also builds on a long-standing discourse from the academic left about “mass incarceration,” policing and race.
Now that discourse is going mainstream. As the media never tire of pointing out, some high-profile figures on the right are joining the chorus on the left for deincarceration and decriminalization. Newt Gingrich is pairing with left-wing activist Van Jones, and the Koch brothers have teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union to call for lowered prison counts and less law enforcement. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill support reducing or eliminating mandatory sentences for federal drug-trafficking crimes, in the name of racial equity.
At the state and city levels, hardly a single criminal-justice practice exists that is not under fire for oppressing blacks. Traffic monitoring, antitheft statutes, drug patrols, public-order policing, trespass arrests, pedestrian stops, bail, warrant enforcement, fines for absconding from court, parole revocations, probation oversight, sentences for repeat felony offenders—all have been criticized as part of a de facto system for locking away black men and destroying black communities.
There may be good reasons for radically reducing the prison census and the enforcement of criminal laws. But so far the arguments advanced in favor of that agenda have been as deceptive as the claim that prisons are filled with casual drug users. It is worth examining the gap between the reality of law enforcement and the current campaign against it, since policy based on fiction is unlikely to yield positive results.