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How Media Copaganda Hides the Truth about the US Punishment Bureaucracy

The media’s narrow focus on certain crimes obscures the horrors of the legal punishment system and deflects our attention away from the most impactful crimes, those of the rich and powerful.

Alec Karakatsanis is one of the country’s most forceful and persuasive critics of the criminal punishment system. He is the founder and executive director of the Civil Rights Corps and the author of Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System, a stirring indictment of the legal system. His work as a lawyer has been covered in the New York Times and he was recently a guest on the Daily Show. Karakatsanis came on the Current Affairs podcast to talk with editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson about “copaganda” and how media narratives about crime and policing keep us from having an intelligent conversation on how to reduce violence in our society.

You can find Alec’s Copaganda newsletter here and reach him on social media here. His Current Affairs article responding to Matt Yglesias’ argument for more cops can be found here. This interview has been edited and condensed for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

In the Copaganda newsletter, one of your main targets is mainstream media reporting on criminal punishment, prosecution, and policing. I want to devote the bulk of our conversation to going through the various ways in which people’s perceptions are manipulated because of how the press presents the “facts.” The media distorts things but also misses the big picture of what the American criminal punishment system looks like. What is the most important thing readers are missing when they read about criminal punishment?

Karakatsanis

I think the most important thing that is unstated in almost all media coverage of the criminal punishment bureaucracy—and, more broadly, about issues of public safety—is that the U.S. is currently caging human beings at a rate that is unprecedented in its own history and in the recorded history of the modern world. We’re caging people at five times the rate that we did when Nixon was president. We’re caging people at a rate of five or 10 times what other comparably wealthy countries do right now. Those countries, by the way, have significantly lower levels of violence.

So what we know from our own history and from studying other societies all over the world is that if our giant bureaucracy—cops, prosecutors, judges, probation and parole officers, prison guards, prisons, surveillance technology, companies profiting at every stage of that process—made us safe, we would have the safest society in the history of the world. But those things don’t make us safe.

So there’s this core denial in almost all news coverage of just what an outlier we are in terms of the sheer scope of the project that we’ve undertaken to take people away from their homes and schools and churches and jobs and communities to put them into this government run system of cages, concrete, and metal. And that is an incredible omission.

Robinson

There’s the omission of the numbers, and there’s the omission of the human reality. You have been using the word “caging.” Some people might use the word incarceration. And I take it that what you are trying to draw people’s attention to is the human reality of family separation, of forced labor, of debtors prisons, and of horrific deprivation that we are inflicting upon people when we make the decision to “incarcerate” them.

Karakatsanis

Absolutely. Because many people aren’t directly impacted by the system or don’t have family in the system, they don’t understand the sheer horror of what incarceration does to people—in their bodies and in their minds. And so the second big thing that’s missing is any reasonably accurate or reasonably faithful accounting of the incredible brutality of what it’s like to be in one of the 3,150 jails around this country or the 1,800 prisons.

What is it like to be deprived of sunlight and fresh air and the ability to hug your child? What is it like to be sleeping on the floor covered in mucus and feces and blood and urine? What is it like to be handcuffed and chained to a bench for three days straight? What is it like to be in the torture of solitary confinement? What is it like to be barred from reading what you want to read or hugging another human being? What is it like to be sexually and physically assaulted?

This is all completely missing from the media coverage of what these bureaucracies are doing. And I don’t think it’s an accident. If most people who aren’t affected by it knew what was happening, I think they would have a much more difficult time supporting it.

I think there’s a third thing missing, which I hinted at and which we need to make explicit. As with climate change, there is an overwhelming scientific consensus about the root causes of crime, or interpersonal harm, in our society. Crime is a heavily politicized concept, but the root causes have to do with all of the ways in which our society destroys the bonds between human beings: things like access to housing, early childhood education, inequality, poverty, mental illness. These are the causes of crime, by and large. So every time we talk about crime, the idea that what matters is a decision by some bureaucrat or prosecutor actually goes against the great weight of scientific knowledge.

Robinson

One of the things that you emphasize repeatedly is that we should not accept this framing that those who oppose the present criminal punishment regime are “soft on crime,” or that they’re sympathetic to those who commit crimes, as opposed to the “tough on crime” people, who take the crimes more seriously. You emphasize that the “tough on crime” people are not really interested in stopping the things they say they’re stopping. That’s because they are ignoring the piles of research in criminology that show that harsh punishments are not, in fact, addressing the causes of crime.

Karakatsanis

There are two important points to be made here. One is this point you’re suggesting, which is that if you actually were to look at the evidence, the policies that are called “tough on crime” actually increase crime. And the policies that are called “soft on crime” actually, over the long term, lead to a society with less harm and crime.

The second vital point to understand is that the people that market themselves as “tough on crime” are only treating harshly certain people accused of certain crimes at certain times. It’s not like they’re tough on all kinds of crime, right? They’re not tough on crimes committed by the police. They’re not tough on crimes committed by wealthy people. They’re not tough on tax evasion. They’re not tough on wage theft. They are interested in ruthlessly crushing poor people. And they’re interested in using their position of power to commandeer the bureaucracy and machinery of state violence to ruthlessly target people who don’t have power in our society for political ends. That’s not tough on “crime” generally. That’s treating certain people accused of certain crimes very, very harshly for certain political goals.

Robinson

One of the things you document in your work is just how extensive wage theft and theft by police are. When you’re saying that “police don’t go after their own crimes,” that is not a minor point, because it’s a huge amount of unprosecuted theft.

Karakatsanis

It’s absolutely orders of magnitude greater than the crime like shoplifting from pharmacies that you see on the local news every night. Estimates are difficult to come by because the police and prosecutors don’t track these crimes. But the experts who study it think that there’s about $50 billion a year in wage theft from corporate entities against low wage workers mostly. That is five times the amount the FBI has reported on property crime in this country combined. The police themselves take more property from people through what they call civil asset forfeiture—much of which is just illegal searches and seizures—than all burglary combined in the U.S. Even by low reasonable estimates of police violence, there are several million physical assaults and sexual assaults by the police every single year in this country. When you actually count all of those things, they would dramatically eclipse all of the reported crime rates that police are currently reporting.

Robinson

I want to dwell on this point about what we might call real public safety or the real reduction of harm. You write,

“The left-leaning people I know and work with every day, like crime survivors, families of victims, vulnerable people, and scientific researchers who study public safety don’t oppose more policing only because it discriminates and crushes families of color. We oppose massive investments in more police and prisons because it doesn’t make anyone safe. They know that investments in the root causes of harm are what communities need. Only by ignoring this scientific consensus can Democratic elites consistently ignore the calls for more equality, housing, health care, and education in favor of more and more guns, cages, and cops.”

I think that’s a critical point that doesn’t get across at all.

Karakatsanis

I think it’s a critical point. One of the most profoundly depressing aspects of my current job leading a national civil rights organization is that I often find myself in conversation with Democratic politicians. And, by and large, these people are profoundly lost. They have no sense of what the actual evidence is on these issues. And that’s largely because they don’t care. They have no sense of how to speak about these issues in a way that’s compelling. They don’t understand how to build a popular political project that actually brings to people the things that they want and need to flourish. There is a very intentional apparatus around them that is producing that ignorance, and there are people benefiting from that ignorance. In many respects, that ignorance is intentional on the part of the politicians themselves—although I’ve been more impressed by their ignorance than I have by their “intentional” strategy.

There’s a very powerful and pervasive bubble within which these people live, where they genuinely believe that if Joe Biden goes on television and talks about being “tough on crime,” the Democrats are going to win the midterms. There’s a lot to be said about the rise of the fascist Right, which is a very scary phenomenon. But in terms of Democratic political elite, the ones who really control local governments and local police forces and jails all across the country, I think what you’re seeing is a social class that understands at a very, very deep level that maintaining ignorance or even willful blindness about these issues benefits them. They benefit from the way that the criminal punishment system is currently being used to control and protect private wealth and property.

The criminal punishment bureaucracy in this country is the threat of imminent and immediate violence at every single moment all around us. And, to some degree, these Democrats who are in charge of these local city governments all over the country understand that if they’re not going to deliver for people on things like equality, housing, and basic health care, they need the force and violence of the criminal punishment system to control and manage the resulting—to use their word—disorder.

Robinson

Let me give you the take of someone who would say that they are just generally sincerely concerned about people getting harmed. And they fear the rollback of punishment because it would allow people who hurt people to remain on the streets. You recently tangled online with the progressive commentator Ana Kasparian of The Young Turks. I like a lot of Ana’s work, but I think she’s dead wrong on criminal punishment. I think it shows how people who consider themselves progressive can end up saying things that are very right wing. She pointed to a case of, I think, someone who had been arrested a number of times and when they got out, they assaulted someone. How do you respond when someone points to one of those cases where they say that a person should have been put behind bars and wasn’t and then went and hurt someone in this gruesome way?

Karakatsanis

I don’t know Ana Kasparian or her work. But her behavior in that interaction was an embarrassment. And it’s hard for me to believe someone who behaved in that way—so willfully spewing nonsense and ignorance—is genuinely progressive. That might be the character they’re playing online or something like that. But it was absurd. Her behavior in that incident was very much like going to someone and saying: climate change is a real problem, and them saying, it absolutely isn’t a problem. There is no such thing as global warming. Did you see that it was extremely cold in Canada yesterday?

What she did was pick out an anecdote—of course there’s going to be crime committed in our society. And where she went really wrong is that she wouldn’t engage in any kind of real meaningful way. What she tried to do was what we saw George H.W. Bush do with the Willie Horton ad: take a single incident and push people toward racist, counterproductive, and classist policy proposals that actually make that very problem worse. It’s using an anecdote to argue against the great weight of scientific literature. You can always find an anecdote.

The New York Times, for example, always seems to be able to find the person in a particular community who’s going to say exactly what the police chief’s talking point is. But that doesn’t mean that when you actually sit and talk with people, that they all share this view. It’s very similar to Kasparian. Because one person who was arrested many times in the past commits a crime, that does not mean that bail reform is a mistaken policy, or that the evidence showing that bail reform actually reduces crime in the short, medium, and long term is wrong. It’s just classic right-wing, troll-like behavior. And it was really surprising to see that from someone prominent on the Left, but I’d never seen her work before.

Robinson

This gets to the tropes and tendencies that we see in the press that we need to be on the lookout for. You point to the example of the use of anecdotes. And obviously, in a lot of the reporting on the record of progressive prosecutors, what you’ll get is the story of the family of a victim who was subjected to a horrible crime. They’ll say, Well, the perpetrator got this deal, and they were let out on the streets. But you’re what you’re saying is that we have to ask, Do the policies work? What is the statistical trend here? With bail reform, you say that the case for it is not just a matter of being sympathetic to people who are put in jail because they can’t afford to pay bail. It’s that the policy works.

Karakatsanis

Let me give you a couple of examples. With bail, what we know from the scientific studies of millions of cases across the country is that when you jail someone because they can’t pay bail after their arrest, you destabilize their life. They lose their job if they had one. They lose their place in a homeless shelter if they had one. If they’re taking medication for any type of mental illness, that gets interrupted. They get physically and sexually traumatized in the jail. They’re separated from their families. They can lose their apartment or their house.

Jails are what we call criminogenic. They lead people to commit more crime in the future. So when you jail someone for even two or three days after their arrest, you’re actually making it more likely for them to commit crime in the future. This is as opposed to trying to understand what it was that led that person to come into the criminal punishment system and trying to address the needs that they have. This includes things like helping people find work, helping people find housing, helping people find social workers who can support them, helping people find the therapy that they need, getting people into the right community-based programming. These are the things that work according to the research.

Secondly, when you invest extraordinary sums of money in incarceration, you’re not investing that money in the things that actually lead to a reduction of crime over the long term, like early childhood education. Local governments all over the country used much of the COVID relief money for police overtime, surveillance technology, weaponry, jails, and things like that, as opposed to public health and safety. These have incredible consequences in the future for things like crime.

And then the second example I want to give you is the war on drugs. People like Kasparian would say, Well, you see someone on the street, they’ve been arrested for fentanyl possession ten times so you should jail them the eleventh time they’re arrested. But when you think about how that policy plays out over the course of a whole society, we’ve been doing that for the last 40 years. We have arrested tens of millions of people at trillions of dollars in cost. We have separated millions of children from their families. We have firebombed and chemical bombed much of Latin America. We have surveilled the communications of billions of people. And this is all in the name of the war on drugs. And if you look at drug usage now, drugs are more potent than ever. There are orders of magnitude more overdose deaths than have ever happened. Young people are using dangerous drugs at higher rates. By every conceivable measure, the war on drugs has been an utter failure.

You can’t just look at one person getting arrested. Kasparian wants to lock that person up. But you can’t use one anecdote to understand social policy more broadly. And I think that’s one of the big fallacies that she was exhibiting in that dialogue.

Robinson

There is a kind of dehumanizing assumption that is built into seeing people as criminals. There’s often a discussion about what to do with criminals. What do we do with violent offenders? We reduce a person to the particular harm they’ve committed. That makes it easier for us to avoid thinking about the moral implications of, as you say, violently seizing someone and putting them in a cage. Caging is only possible if you conceive of them as a kind of wild animal that needs to be put in a cage because there’s nothing else that you could possibly do.

Karakatsanis

Crime is defined by people who own things in our society. And police and prosecutors are only looking for some crime by some people some of the time. I think there’s this incredible fallacy among many people who don’t have any experience with the criminal system. There’s this tendency to define people who’ve committed a crime as bad people, to think that they committed a crime because of that evil. That just fundamentally, in my experience, misunderstands human behavior. The vast majority of times when people hurt each other in our society it is not because the person is irredeemably bad or irrevocably dangerous but because of very particular circumstances in which they found themselves. And we as a society have control—to a large extent, but not completely—over those circumstances.

I was a public defender for years. I have represented hundreds of human beings charged with offenses. But I have never met more sociopaths than I met when I was in the Harvard Law Review. Never in my work as a public defender representing people accused of crimes have I met anywhere near the number of sociopaths that I’ve met when interacting with local politicians. What we have to understand is that many of those people are willfully hurting people every day, too, so they’re committing things that are immoral. They’re doing all kinds of things that hurt other people intentionally, unintentionally, negligently, and recklessly. Many of these actions are actually crimes as well. Wealthy people take a trillion dollars in taxes every year. There is absolutely rampant sexual assault at every major American elite university. If you look at any reasonable metric, people across our society are committing significant amounts of harm.

That does not make everyone who hurts someone a bad person based on an incident in which they hurt someone. And it’s much more productive and much more consistent with the evidence for us to try to understand how someone came to hurt someone in a particular moment. How do we repair that harm in a way that doesn’t actually make that person more likely to commit that same harm in the future? And our system is doing exactly the opposite.

When we put someone who may have committed a crime that’s connected to a mental illness in solitary confinement for many years, what is the theory there for how that person, when they get out, is going to avoid getting into a similar situation to the one that led to their incarceration in the first place? Many other societies are able to grasp this and are able to put in place minimally basic policies; most of these countries don’t even have great policies. But there are minimal policies so that they don’t cage such a huge percentage of their population. You have to wonder: who is benefiting from the way we’re doing it? Who’s profiting, and why?

Robinson

I said that when you throw someone in a cage, you’re treating them like an animal, and you’re not really accounting for the true extent of the violence this causes. But you also regularly point out that putting someone in prison takes years off their life. So if we think that prison is softer than the death penalty, we need to face the fact that what we are actually doing is taking a portion of their life from them beyond even just the portion that they’re going to be spending in a prison.

Karakatsanis

This is a really profound point. One of the key things that the media conceals from people is that each year in prison takes about two years off of that person’s life. In the U.S, we incarcerate so many people for so long that the average U.S. life expectancy is almost two years less than it would otherwise be if we incarcerated people at the rates of other comparable countries. This is a profound omission in mainstream media. I think many people don’t understand that. Prisons kill people. And prisons and jails are vectors of disease. They are deeply harmful for overall life expectancy. And it’s astonishing to me that when the media covers crime, and when it covers our reaction to crime through the punishment bureaucracy, it doesn’t tell people that, overall, these systems are killing people, and they’re killing all of us.

Robinson

Your newsletter is called “copaganda.” Define that term for us and give us a couple of examples of copaganda.

Karakatsanis

Copaganda is a very particular type of propaganda that is designed to get people to support the punishment bureaucracy system as it’s currently constituted in this society. One major function of copaganda is that it wants to narrow our conception of harm to only those types of harms that the police and prosecutors and courts deal with. So, for example, copaganda focuses us on certain types of interpersonal harm such as shoplifting, burglary, robbery, murder, the kinds of crimes that the police are likely to arrest people for and patrol for. But it doesn’t steer us toward much more significant types of harm such as water pollution crimes or air pollution crimes, which both kill orders of magnitude more people in this country every year than all murder combined.

As I mentioned, the amount of tax evasion is about 63 times all other property crimes combined. And so one of the first functions of copaganda is to get us really focused on a very narrow range of harm which the police call “crime.” And even among things that are criminal, we’re not focused on the things that the police don’t track. So that’s number one.

Another example is that for many decades in this country, sexual assault and child sexual assault were basically ignored by the media. The police don’t track those things. They rarely arrest people for these crimes. And so it was basically completely ignored. In fact, the police themselves were sitting on hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits, and they were choosing instead to use their resources to arrest people for low level drug crimes. The police in this country over the last 10 years have arrested more people for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined. So that’s one function of copaganda: getting us focused on all the wrong things.

The second function is to get us thinking that crime is increasing. In media surveys over the last 25 years, people are consistently wrong about whether a reported crime in their jurisdiction is increasing or not.

A third major function of copaganda—this is probably the most insidious and the most important—is that, contrary to all available scientific evidence, copaganda gets us to link crime and safety to the little policy tweaks that these bureaucrats make. People are constantly told that what the police are doing—or criminal sentencing or bail or if Pittsburgh or L.A. hire more cops—has a meaningful effect on crime. But large social crime trends are driven by things like poverty, housing, and health care. They’re not driven by little tweaks in bureaucratic policy like sentencing someone to 10 months instead of four months or seven years instead of four years.

The fourth function of copaganda is a complete and utter omission: sweeping under the rug the violence and the harms of the system. People don’t understand the full scope of the harms these systems are causing.

Robinson

It’s true that the media plays a major role in drawing people’s attention to the wrong thing. But how do you respond when someone says—well, actually, let me cite a personal example, about a week ago there was a shooting about 300 feet from my own house and the police came. And I was glad the police came because two guys were shot and it was very, very scary. When people say, “Okay, well, I agree with you on wage theft and all that, but also, I am scared to go out at night because carjackings have been increasing this year in the city,” what do you say to people who demand “tough on crime” policies out of fear?

Karakatsanis

I have devoted my life to doing this work precisely because I care about harm and violence. And I want us to adopt policies that actually make those shootings less frequent and bring safety to these communities. And one of the most offensive, grotesque things about copaganda and about the current media system is that it is pointing us toward all of the wrong solutions. We have the most heavily incarcerated, heavily policed, and heavily surveilled society that we’ve ever had. And it is not reducing the amount of interpersonal violence in our society. It does not work. The police do not prevent these shootings. There are many factors at play. But the most significant ones are the root causes of social and interpersonal harm. There are other things, too, like the extraordinary availability of guns in our society. What I say to that person is: I’m right there with you. I don’t want there to be shootings. But police, prosecutors, and prisons are not going to give us a society with less crime and less harm.

Robinson

So, let me just quote a New York Times headline that you critique in your newsletter:

They say that Democratic politicians wanted to stop punitive tough-on-crime policies but realized they had to maintain them because of a surge in violent crime. A lot to unpack in this headline.

Karakatsanis

I wrote a lengthy newsletter about that. Every week, I’m publishing a newsletter or two that really takes these examples from the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and from other news outlets and goes point by point through the errors that they’re making, through the assumptions that they’re making, through the sources they cite, the turns of phrase that they use. There’s too much to get into it here.

But one of the first things with that article is that it asserts that these Democratic politicians wanted to do certain types of reform. That is a very controversial claim. And one of the things that we see all over the media is an acceptance of the stated motivations of powerful people as their actual motivations. We see that not just in copaganda but in forms of government propaganda—like George W. Bush saying he was invading Iraq because he wanted to spread democracy. That’s one obvious example.

Every single day in every paper in the country, you see things like, “the police are doing such and such because they want to reduce drug crime.” In fact, the reason that police are doing that action might be to get more overtime pay or to seize more properties or civil forfeiture or because, like in the case of Breonna Taylor, there are real estate development interests that dictated where the police were going to do their home raids. When you actually take a more expansive view of why the police are choosing to police certain neighborhoods and not police others and choosing to enforce some crimes but not others, it rarely comes down to any genuine concern for a particular kind of crime. It almost always comes down to the bigger-picture structural issues that they don’t talk to us about

Robinson

Finally, in general, what should people be looking for when they read news stories about crime and punishment?

Karakatsanis

Each week in my newsletter, I try to explain a different thing to people. One big point is the sheer volume of stories about crime and punishment. Pay attention to the number of stories in your local outlets about police-reported crime versus the number of stories about illegal eviction, workplace safety violations, air and water pollution, wage theft, tax evasion, and other crimes that wealthy people commit every single day that the government also tracks. Different government agencies are constantly tracking these things, which are not being reported to you. You have to understand who benefits from that. Who benefits from making you feel really concerned about shoplifting but not about polluted water that your kids are drinking? Even though there are 100,000 water pollution violations every single year in this country (that we know about), it’s barely scratching the surface. There are cancer deaths, lead poisoning for kids. The consequences are enormous.

Another thing to think about is who is being quoted as a source. Where are these articles coming from? Whose perspective is included, and whose perspective is ignored? Who is lifted up to you as an expert, and whose opinion is not even shared at all? I think those are some really key things for readers to pay attention to.

Robinson

I might add to that: check the academic literature. Oftentimes, you find that researchers have done a lot of work on studying a particular problem. And you can be misled by easy solutions and slogans. And then you find out that, as in the case of bail, the actual weight of the social scientific evidence runs totally contrary to what you’ve been told.

Karakatsanis

Absolutely.

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