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Zimring on Mass Incarceration: Empirical Pessimism and Cautious Reformist Optimism

By Robert Weisberg. Full Text.

This Article places Professor Zimring’s treatment of the boom in imprisonment that led to mass incarceration in the wider context of his decades-long contemplation of our ability to understated changes in crime and punishment. His earlier studies of the great crime decline that began in the 1990s provides a revealing, if complex, analogy to his study of the great incarceration spike that started before and continued along with the crime decline. In examining the crime decline he found the case for a number of the preferred explanatory candidates to be only modestly convincing, leading him to a subtle blend of tragic resignation about the limits of our empirical powers and a reassuring optimism that about the irreducible, if mysterious, resilience and adaptability of American society. In examining the prison boom, he again reviews the candidates for causation—including possibly exogenous crime rates, legislative harshening of punishments for certain crimes, and the often demagogic politics of tough-on-crime. And, again, he is only modestly persuaded about each. And again despite his pessimism about our capacity to understand, and his worry that our ability to reverse mass incarceration will not match our ability to sustain low crime rates, he extracts some pragmatic recommendations for changes in government and public finance that might give hope.