Sen. Tom Cotton Thinks We Don't Incarcerate Enough People — These Stats Prove Him Wrong


Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton can't possibly know very many people who have been jailed or imprisoned.

If he did, he wouldn't make terribly uninformed remarks like those in an anti-criminal justice reform speech he delivered Thursday in Washington, D.C. Speaking at the Hudson Institute, Cotton praised every problematic law enforcement policy that created this country's prison industrial complex and saw people of color locked up en masse over the last two decades.

"If anything, we have an underincarceration problem."

Cotton incorrectly said it's the mass incarceration that brought U.S. crime rates to historic lows, after the highs of the 1990s. He credited "broken windows" policing, which emphasizes enforcement of petty crime ordinances, mandatory minimum sentencing, which takes discretion in punishments away from judges, and "three strikes" laws, which puts people away for life after a third criminal conviction.

The senator also criticized states like Virginia, which in April restored voting rights for 200,000 formerly incarcerated individuals, and condemned movements like Black Lives Matter for engaging the nation in a conversation about police brutality and injustice.

"We turned our society around and we made our streets safe again," Cotton said. "But this didn't just happen by accident."

Read the text of his prepared speech here.

The senator is right that America's criminal justice policies were deliberate in scope. However, there are so many statistics that prove Cotton has his "underincarceration" theory all wrong. Here are the most important ones:

The U.S. locks people up at a rate that is higher than any other country on the globe.

The country's rate is 716 per 100,000 people, according to the World Prison Population List by the U.K.'s International Center for Prison Studies. More than half of the 222 nations on the list had incarceration rates below 150 per 100,000.

Approximately 1.5 million people were living in state and federal prisons in 2013, according to federal data. Each year, those facilities release about 650,000 men and women, some of them without the right to vote and most of them with severe disadvantages in the job market.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Mass incarceration has made the U.S. less productive.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research has estimated that because formerly incarcerated people have poor job prospects, the nation's gross domestic product in 2008 was reduced by as much as $65 billion, according to its 2010 report.

While the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated individuals isn't tracked nationally, in New York, the unemployment rate for parolees was as high as 60% one year after release, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Seth Wenig/AP

Men of color are locked up at disproportionate rates compared to white men.

Black men were six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men in 2013, according to the Sentencing Project. Hispanic men were 2.4 times more likely to be jailed than white men.

Despite these statistics, it's Cotton's belief that advocates of criminal justice reform are wrong to "speak and act as though criminals are victims, too." Someone should tell the senator that it's actually the criminal justice system that does so much of the victimizing.

Formerly incarcerated people often have hard times finding employment, can be saddled with incarceration-related debts, and prohibited from public assistance services, such as Section 8 Housing and financial aid for college. Too many can end up right back in jail because so-called leaders like Cotton would prefer the formerly incarcerated never get the opportunity to move on to better lives.