Waylaid by a Metaphor: A Deeply Problematic Account of Prison Growth (A Review of Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons)

30 Pages Posted: 28 Nov 2012

See all articles by John F. Pfaff

John F. Pfaff

Fordham University School of Law

Date Written: November 27, 2012


This article reviews Ernest Drucker's recent book, "A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America," which attempts to explain the causes behind the explosion in prison growth over the past several decades. The account proves to be unsatisfying, and this review highlights four major flaws with Drucker's work.

First, Drucker places too much weight on the war on drugs. While he argues it is the primary engine of prison growth, the increase in drug incarcerations explains only about 25% of the total growth since the 1970s. Second, he significantly underplays the importance of soaring crime rates between 1960 and 1991 (during which time violent crime rates rose by 371% and property crime rates by 198%). Third, Drucker (like many others), treats the criminal justice system as a coherent entity, not a collection of feuding institutions (such as local police, county prosecutors, and state parole boards) with different incentives, budgets, and constituencies. And fourth, when examining the collateral costs of incarceration, he compares the lifecourse outcomes of former inmates to those of the population in general, not to those of similarly-situated non-inmates; since inmates are disproportionately drawn from economically and socially unstable communities, this leads him to potentially overstate the size of these costs.

Importantly, these flaws are not unique to this book, but are endemic to the literature on prison growth, and this review provides some suggestions on how to improve future empirical work in this area.

Keywords: prisons, incarceration, crime, prosecutors, drugs

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Pfaff, John F., Waylaid by a Metaphor: A Deeply Problematic Account of Prison Growth (A Review of Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons) (November 27, 2012). Michigan Law Review, Forthcoming; Fordham Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2181483. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2181483

John F. Pfaff (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

140 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States

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