Reviews and other discussions of Locked In



The New Yorker: "How we misunderstand mass incarceration"

"Pfaff, let there be no doubt, is a reformer. “Mass incarceration,” he writes, “is one of the biggest social problems the United States faces today; our sprawling prison system imposes staggering economic, social, political, and racial costs.” Nonetheless, he believes that the standard story ... is false. We are desperately in need of reform, he insists, but we must reform the right things, and address the true problem."

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The Marshall Project: "Everything You Think You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong"

"Critics of the prison-happy American criminal justice system tend to subscribe to a narrative that goes like this: Mass incarceration was ignited by the war on drugs (blame Nixon or Reagan), was pumped up by draconian sentencing and is now sustained by a “prison industrial complex” that puts profit before humane treatment and rehabilitation. John Pfaff, in his provocative new book, “Locked In,” calls this the “Standard Story.” And he challenges every element of that narrative.

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National RevieW: "We’ve Been Explaining Mass Incarceration in All the Wrong Ways"

"In short, Pfaff challenges readers to consider the trade-offs between safety and enforcement and the real costs and benefits to incarcerating the 2 million people we do in the United States today. Packed with information and statistics, with criticisms and solutions, Locked In is a fresh, welcome contribution to the criminal-justice debate."

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National Review: "Beyond getting tough"

"Sir William Blackstone famously decreed that it would be better for ten guilty men to escape justice than for one innocent to suffer at the hands of the law. In theory, it seems like an admirable principle. If mere men are to wield the sword of justice, they should do so cautiously. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality of America’s criminal-justice system. This is just one of the troubling realities that emerge from John Pfaff’s new book, Locked In. It is a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion about justice reform."


Wall Street Journal: "The prosecutorS' prison State"

"If we want to became the land of the free again, Mr. Pfaff concludes, we need to rethink both the old “let’s lock ’em up and throw away the key” perspective and the ability of prosecutors to send so many people to prison to begin with. 

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Los angeles review of books: "In The joint"

"This is Pfaff’s most counterintuitive finding, with profound implications for how to tackle reform. In the early 1990s, violent crime began to fall dramatically... But prison expansion continued apace. And most of this was because of prosecutors pushing for felony charges with increasing frequency, according to Pfaff.... Many of these cases are decided in backroom plea bargains, where clients are inadequately represented by time poor and underfunded public lawyers. Short of increased funding for indigent defense, only a change in attitude among prosecutors and the public who elect them will reverse this trend of filing felony charges."

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Bloomberg view: "jeff sessions probably can't restart the incarceration boom"

"The key to [prison growth], Pfaff argues, is local prosecutors. He believes this because that's what the data tell him -- his book is not so much a polemic as a quest for answers in criminal-justice data. There's even a little statistical drama, such as what happens after Pfaff unearths some previously unexamined National Center on State Courts data on felony cases filed since 1994...."

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boston globe: "why we should free violent criminals"

"The criminal justice reform movement, Pfaff argues, needs a reorientation — and a willingness to show mercy for prisoners beyond the proverbial nonviolent drug offender. That means diverting more people — whatever their offenses — away from the system, thereby sparing them from a criminal record. And there’s only one way to do that, he says: Change the behavior of the most powerful actor in the criminal justice system, the prosecutor.

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Pacific Standard: "have we been looking at mass incarceration all wrong?"

"In Locked In, Pfaff plays a Socrates of criminal justice reform, interrogating all the main tenets of the Standard Story and eviscerating them with scores of data. He also points a finger at a powerful actor in the criminal justice system that has largely eluded scrutiny: the prosecutor. 'No matter how we define the War on Drugs,' Pfaff writes, 'its impact appears to be important, but unequivocally secondary to other factors.'"

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quartz: "America’s mass incarceration crisis can’t be fixed until we realize we’ve been looking at the problem all wrong"

"Pfaff isn’t out to cut the legs out from under those who wish to see a change to mass incarceration in the US, but he truly believes the Standard Story is getting in the way of effective reform. 'We focus on the wrong thing,' he says, 'and we actually adopt policies that won’t work.'"

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Washington monthly: "All criminal justice reform is local"

"he centrality of prosecutors to prison growth is in some ways discouraging. It’s easier to confront a problem that can be resolved with a discrete fix: passing a big drug-decriminalization bill, banning private prisons, or getting rid of mandatory minimums. The truth is that mass incarceration is much messier, and solving it will require wrangling with a complex web of laws, habits, and incentives varying across fifty states and thousands of jurisdictions.


the american conservative: "The Hidden Realities of U.S. Incarceration"


Pfaff’s book is targeted primarily at reformers, not skeptics. He believes the reformers misunderstand the problem and hence cannot solve it. He notes, for example, that many efforts to cut sentences for low-level offenders are coupled with increased sentences for those who commit worse crimes—which would address the problem described in the Standard Story but not the reality we actually face.

And in debunking the myth of nonviolent drug offenders haphazardly locked away for long periods of time, of course, he runs the risk of inadvertently convincing his audience there really isn’t much of a problem. He’s to be commended for taking that risk.

But, by forthrightly explaining the true nature of incarceration in America before laying out his case for reform, Pfaff poses a serious challenge for the skeptics, too. Unlike so many activists and op-ed writers, Pfaff cannot be waved away with a handful of simple statistics demonstrating that, no, our high incarceration rate isn’t the result of locking up first-time offenders caught smoking pot. He knows that, and still sees serious problems with the status quo. His ideas deserve a close look.

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America: "The problem of mass incarceration is more complicated than we thought"

"Exploring multiple hypotheses that might help us understand the disproportionate power wielded by district attorneys, Pfaff urges thorough scrutiny of prosecutors and their offices. He exhaustively considers the role of tougher sentencing laws, the role of “tough on crime” political rhetoric, the weakening of public defense, the fact that prosecutors rarely face competitive elections, the ways prosecutors reap the political benefits of sending someone to prison while costs are borne by the poor and the states, and the enduring role of implicit racial bias.