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What the New White House Video Gets Wrong About Prisons

The new video of President Obama interviewing David Simon is a work of public relations genius; it also makes some dangerous mistakes concerning the criminal justice system.
President Obama interviewing David Simon. (Photo: The White House/YouTube)

President Obama interviewing David Simon. (Photo: The White House/YouTube)

Last night, the White House posted a video of President Barack Obama interviewing David Simon, the creator of the brilliant HBO crime drama The Wire. It's a bracing bit of programming from the Administration: In the wake of Ferguson, the nation's first black president talked to one of our most penetrating, pessimistic thinkers on the topic of widespread racial disparities in the criminal justice system. (Simon even has a blog on these topics titled “The Audacity of Despair,” a riposte to the president’s book, The Audacity of Hope.)

The video has been widely praised both for its propagandistic genius and for the frank insights on American crime and punishment that Obama and Simon offered—which is strange, considering how much they distort or even get wrong about trends in the system.

Take the president's remark, "What we know is that a consequence of [police targeting low-level drug traffickers] was this massive trend towards incarceration, even of non-violent drug offenders.” Obama doesn't quite say that those non-violent drug offenders explain our unusually high incarceration rates, but that's the implication. Is it true? As John Pfaff, a professor at Fordham Law School pointed out in a recent interview with Slate, "Even when the percentage of drug offenders among the state prison population was at its peak, about four out of every five people were there for a nondrug offense." Jakub Wrzesniewski, a political science researcher at the University of California-Berkeley adds that the offenses of the remaining one in five offenders “are rarely limited,” to mere casual drug use. In other words, we could set free all the non-violent drug offenders in jail and still have an insane incarceration rate.

Later in the video, Obama references the high rate of minorities in prison, specifically how the incarcerated are “disproportionately Latino and African American."

While it is true that minorities are highly over-represented in prison, the president is glancing away from the larger issue: a nationwide punitive impulse that transcends racial biases. Wrzesniewski notes how, "If every black inmate were emancipated today, the prison system would remain outrageously overstuffed, and the overall rate would still be worse than Russia’s." That isn't to fault Obama for emphasizing a glaring racial inequity, but whether or not that problem goes away, the devastating impact on families and communities that he and Simon attribute to mass incarceration will remain.

The pair aren’t all wrong, of course. They rightly point out that the end of the drug wars draws nigh, echoing an argument Maia Szalavitz recently made in Pacific Standard. And they correctly note that many precincts have gotten smarter about de-emphasizing the shortsighted “rip and run” policing tactics (street-level busts of gang underlings dealing small drug quantities) that The Wire so effectively criticized. Simon is also right when he says some departments have found more success with sophisticated investigative tactics involving informants—which produces intelligence that prosecutors can use to bring Federal racketeering charges against whole criminal organizations, instead of just a few foot soldiers. As Sam Quinones argued in a recent Pacific Standard cover story, this strategy seems to have brought about the end of gang violence as we know it in Southern California at least.

But still, Obama and Simon repeat almost every myth that Pfaff debunks in another recent piece for Slate entitled, “Five Myths About Prison Growth," including that longer sentences have significantly contributed to the problem. And those successful racketeering charges aren't exactly helping the incarceration rate, whether or not they actually make cities permanently safer. All in all, the president and the sage from Baltimore are avoiding the hardest truth in a video that mostly panders to a newly energized prison reform movement: A lot more violent—or, as we pointed out in a recent story, even sexually depraved—offenders might have to live among us if we want to even begin to think about making a dent in the prison state while reducing recidivism.