Tom Cotton Will Not Shut Up About Putting More People in Prison

The Republican senator from Arkansas thinks that the U.S. has a prison problem: It doesn’t have enough of them.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) speaks during U.S. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland's confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on February 22, 2021 in Washington, DC.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) speaks during U.S. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland's confirmation hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on February 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman-Pool/Getty Images)

GOP Sen. Tom Cotton is once again dragging out one of his favorite lines: The United States, Cotton believes, simply needs more prisoners. 

On Wednesday, in response to a report about rising homicide rates, Cotton tweeted that the U.S. “absolutely has an under-incarceration problem.” It was the second time he posted to social media about it in 24 hours. 


The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2 million people in prison and nearly 700 out of every 100,000 people in jail as of 2018, according to the Prison Policy Initiative

“The truth is that too many crimes go unsolved and unpunished,” Cotton continued. “The liberals who push the ‘mass incarceration’ line fail to point out that most crimes are unsolved, crime is rising, and the prison population has fallen in recent years.”

In his tweet, Cotton referred to an article by the right-wing Washington Examiner that characterized the spike in murders in 2020 as having rocketed back to “’90s levels” based on data from the FBI. 

But the Examiner compared 2020 to 1998, when crime had already decreased significantly from its peak a few years earlier. The homicide rate was nearly 10 murders per every 100,000 people in 1991, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. By 1998, that had been cut 35 percent to around 6.3 murders per 100,000 people.

Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based criminal data analyst, told the Examiner that from FBI data, the murder rate in 2020 was 6.22 per every 100,000 people. Though researchers have said it’s too early to determine what’s driving the increase in murders, Asher told NPR earlier this year that the arc in the homicides corresponded with key developments during the COVID-19 pandemic. 


"We have good data that the rise in murder was happening in the early stages of the pandemic,” Asher told NPR. “We have good data that the rise in murder picked up in the early stages of the summer, and we also have good data that the rise of murder picked up again in September and October as some of the financial assistance started to wear off."

But it seems that 2020’s crime spike is not what prompted the “under-incarceration” line from Cotton in the first place. He’s said it before.

“If anything, we have an under-incarceration problem,” Cotton said in a speech at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank in May 2016. In 2015, the murder rate was 4.9 murders per every 100,000 people, according to FBI statistics—one of the lowest rates on record. 

Research has shown the “tough on crime” policies that characterized much of the past three decades did not much have much of an impact on the crime rate. In fact, between 2007 and 2017, more than two-thirds of U.S. states both reduced their incarceration and crime rates at the same time, according to a 2019 analysis by the Brennan Center

But Cotton has resisted new scholarship about criminal justice reform and suggested that America should get even tougher on crime. In 2018, when the Trump administration and Cotton’s fellow Republicans worked with Democrats on a limited incarceration reform bill known as the First Step Act, Cotton unsuccessfully lobbied hard against it. 

“I believe there are reforms to the criminal justice system that align with core conservative principles, such as adding a mens rea requirement for all crimes, reducing the size of the criminal code, and limiting federal power over our lives,” Cotton wrote for the National Review in 2018. “This bill includes none of those provisions. But it does include the priorities of the ACLU and the New York Times editorial board.”