Debunking Another Junk Study from the Left

Source: The Prison Policy Initiative

by James A. Bacon

The Prison Policy Initiative, a group dedicated to exposing “the broader harm of mass criminalization,” has published data detailing the incarceration rate of communities across Virginia. Among Virginia’s 95 counties and 38 cities, 26 are missing at least 1% of their population to incarceration, finds “The geography of mass incarceration in Virginia.

Among the more notable findings: while the cities of Norfolk and Richmond send the largest numbers of people to prison, less populous localities — Martinsville, Petersburg, Franklin, Buchanan, Lee, Dickenson and Brunswick — are missing a larger share of their populations. Moreover, within localities incarceration rates differ widely by neighborhood.

The data is interesting and potentially useful, but the analysis that accompanies it is atrocious. If the numbers prove anything, it’s that “mass incarceration” knows no racial boundaries. The poverty-ridden Appalachian counties of Lee, Buchanan and Dickenson are overwhelmingly White. But the authors slight that obvious fact in favor of linking incarceration with “systemic racism.”

This passage is typical: “Decades of systematic oppression and divestment from these poorer communities of color — which we know are overpoliced — have left these historically redlined communities particularly vulnerable to Virginia’s modern-day reliance on mass incarceration.”

Where do I begin?

“Cycle of disinvestment.” It’s a common trope to link the pathologies of low-income minority neighborhoods with the practice of redlining — which was outlawed in 1968. Yes, that was 54 years ago, but the discriminatory practice allegedly set into motion a “cycle of disinvestment” in minority neighborhoods that have kept them mired in poverty.

I’d like to know what kind of “disinvestment” the Prison Policy Project is talking about. Is it referring to the trillions of dollars spent on welfare programs over the past half century — SNAP (once called food stamps), TANF (temporary assistance for needy families), Medicaid, Obamacare,  Earned Income Tax Credits, nutrition for women, infants, and children (WIC), public housing and rental assistance, disability assistance, Pell grants for low-income students, child nutrition in schools, Head Start, job-training programs for the poor, subsidized child care, free transit fares for the poor, and energy assistance programs for the poor, not to mention the infamous Obamaphones? That “disinvestment”?

Or does the study refer to financial disinvestment in businesses and real estate — like the $72 billion requested this year for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (2023)? Or the $57 billion spent by state and local governments (2019)  on housing and community development? Or the billions in Small Business Administration loans handed our preferentially to minority firms? Or the billions spent by the nonprofit sector on rehabbing housing for the poor, especially the urban poor? That disinvestment?

Or does the study refer to private-sector disinvestment? Like when middle-class “gentrifiers” move into poor neighborhoods, pour money into upgrading the housing stock, and support local retail establishments that support local jobs? Oh, that’s not “disinvestment,” it’s investment. But Prison Policy Institute’s fellow travelers on the left usually describe that as just another manifestation of racism.

Overpoliced. Another leftist trope is that minority neighborhoods suffer from mass incarceration because criminal codes and police practices “target” Black people. The reason police target Black neighborhoods is that Black neighborhoods experience the highest rates of crime, Blacks are disproportionate victims of criminality, and residents of Black neighborhoods disproportionately call 9-1-1.

According to the Crime in Virginia 2021 report there were three times more Black homicide victims in 2021 than White victims — 323 Blacks and 104 Whites — even though Whites in Virginia are three times more numerous. Likewise, Blacks were more likely to be victims of aggravated assaults than Whites — 3,764 reported Black victims versus 3,217 White. The same pattern extends to property crimes, although the numbers are less lopsided: 21,000 White larceny victims versus 20,300 Black larceny victims; 2,500 Black victims of motor vehicle theft versus 2,100 White victims. What are police supposed to do — ignore 9-1-1 calls in Black neighborhoods (and trigger charges of under-policing that favors White neighborhoods over Black)?

Absentee fathers. Another thing we’re told is that all those people in jail and prison (mostly men) undermines the family structure in poor neighborhoods. 

“When you remove this many people from an area it fundamentally changes the fabric of that community,” Mike Wessler, spokesperson for Prison Policy Initiative, told The Virginian-Pilot, which uncritically accepted every premise of the PPI study in its article. “It means you have families that are missing members who played an integral part in the emotional and economic well-being of their households. It weakens the community overall.”

To be sure, there must be devoted fathers among the tens of thousands of men residing in Virginia jails and prisons. But how many? Nobody knows, certainly not the authors of the Prison Policy Project study, who offer no evidence to support their proposition.

Here’s what we do know: high-crime neighborhoods also tend to be neighborhoods with extraordinarily high out-of-wedlock births. Few residents of these neighborhoods (either White or Black) get married. Relationships are far more provisional and transient. Sexual relations can be so casual that women often don’t know the paternity of their children. Paternal neglect of their children (or alleged children) is widespread. And abuse and neglect of children at the hands of live-in boyfriends and “step fathers” is rampant.

What would happen if the jails and prisons were emptied? Perhaps some men would return to their families to become caring fathers. How many would just remain peripherally engaged with their children? And how many would move in with a girlfriend and become abusive toward her children? Would the net result of such an emptying be positive of negative? Would lower-income children experience more trauma or less? The answers are unknowable because no one even poses the questions, much less develops methodologically sound mechanisms to measure the phenomenon.

The Prison Policy Initiative report is just pure public policy advocacy masquerading as social science, and The Virginian-Pilot article is just advocacy posing as journalism.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


25 responses to “Debunking Another Junk Study from the Left”

  1. WayneS Avatar

    The Windsor Farms neighborhood — historically considered one of the “best” neighborhoods for real estate investment during redlining — tends to be predominately white and imprisons virtually no one. Across the city, the neighborhood of Gilpin imprisons residents at a rate of 2,496 per 100,000.

    Maybe the neighborhood of Gilpin should stop imprisoning so many people…


    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      100,000! Sheesh, that’s a helluva big neighborhood! The block party would purt near shame Woodstock!

      1. WayneS Avatar

        It was news to me that individual neighborhoods in Richmond have the power to incarcerate their inhabitants.

        Do Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Fairfax, etc., know about this?


        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          In Norfolk, they neutralize them, same with Portsmouth. The do this by sending them to VB in a car with a broken taillight, and let the cops do the dirty work.

        2. VaPragamtist Avatar

          Tangentially related, I find it intriguing that one city–Washington, DC–could have the power to execute offenders if legislators so desired. Of course, their death penalty was repealed following Furman v Georgia, and subsequent attempts to reinstate have come up empty. But still. . .interesting to think about.

  2. Jail is for criminals. There is no ‘mass incarceration’. Each criminal enjoyed an individual trial and received an individual punishment — even when the crime was committed as a group/gang. Please show one instance where a group [or mass] of people were given a single, simultaneous trial and received a single sentence for all.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      Jail is for people awaiting trial, and misdemeanor sentences less than a year. Prison is for criminals.

      How ’bout those 3 goobers in Georgia? They received a single trial with identical charges. The verdicts varied based on the evidence, but they were all sentenced relative to those verdicts simultaneously.

  3. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    “What are police supposed to do — ignore 9-1-1 calls in Black neighborhoods…”

    Isn’t that cute how JAB thinks cops respond to 9-1-1 calls in black neighborhoods…. and he wonders why crimes are more commonplace there… 🤷‍♂️

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      If they only responded to 9-1-1 calls there’d be a lot less random violence.

    2. WayneS Avatar

      I assume you have evidence they do not?

        1. WayneS Avatar

          Stellar objective sources, all!

          Do you have any actual scientific studies?

          1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
            Eric the half a troll

            This one is actually referenced :


            Much of what was concluded above was based on FOIAed data review. Funny, I don’t see you demanding JAB and crew produce “scientific studies” to support the conclusions THEY draw from such data… or are we to consider them “objective sources”…?

  4. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    JAB says the data may be useful nut excoriates the interpretation. Good to have his rectitude on the case.

    1. walter smith Avatar
      walter smith

      Than apply yours!

  5. WayneS Avatar

    To be sure, there must some devoted fathers among the tens of thousands of men residing in Virginia jails and prisons. But how many?

    I suppose you could find out what percentage of the fathers among these men are chronically behind on their child support and use that as a rough measure of how many of them are NOT devoted fathers.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      At prison wages, are not they all?

      1. WayneS Avatar

        I meant, although admittedly did not specifically say, before they were incarcerated,

    2. James McCarthy Avatar
      James McCarthy

      Securing employment with a felony conviction is a major barrier to economic security as well as a hurdle to public housing.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        Seems like the conviction being a hurdle to public housing is entirely within the government’s purview to change.

      2. WayneS Avatar

        How many convicted felons have you stuck your neck out to hire?

        How many times have you fought an uphill battle against a closed-minded human resources manager to implement a policy which provides deserving former “convicts” a chance at decent paying jobs?

        How many “work release” programs have you implemented and/or administered to train trustees at your local jail for a skilled job?

        Just wondering.

        1. walter smith Avatar
          walter smith

          About the only chances released felony convicts ever get is with those evil religious types…
          In some cases, you can’t hire them under the Violence Against Women Act and other State and Federal impositions, so big companies want to use the conviction as an automatic strike, so then the localities pass laws limiting background checks, etc. Also, juggling the local benefits requirements in crazy cities like Seattle is a nightmare. People have NO idea.
          Finally, in a large company, if an office wants to work at hiring the convicted, many employees will object because it is “religious.”
          And the directors, upper officers, etc, will fold like a cheap suit…

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    They did a substantial job on the data itself.
    Got demographic data from different sources and “fused” it.

    Potential for new insights if done right.

    Also efforts that got legislatures to properly count where prisoners actually got taken into the criminal justice system.

Leave a Reply