Bruce Western writes in the current Boston Review about the prison boom and its effects, summarizing findings and extending arguments he’s been developing for a few years, and which I’ve often written about here.
There are now 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails, a fourfold increase in the incarceration rate since 1980. During the fifty years preceding our current three-decade surge, the scale of imprisonment was largely unchanged. And the impact of this rise has hardly been felt equally in society; the American prison boom is as much a story about race and class as it is about crime control. Nothing separates the social experience of blacks and whites like involvement in the criminal justice system. Blacks are seven times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, and large racial disparities can be seen for all age groups and at different levels of education. One-in-nine black men in their twenties is now in prison or jail. Young black men today are more likely to do time in prison than serve in the military or graduate college with a bachelor’s degree. … Nearly all the growth in imprisonment since 1980 has been concentrated among those with no more than a high school education. Among young black men who have never been to college, one in five are incarcerated, and one in three will go to prison at some time in their lives. The intimate link between school failure and incarceration is clear at the bottom of the education ladder where 60 percent of black, male high school dropouts will go to prison before age thirty-five. … These astonishing levels of punishment are new. We need only go back two decades to find a time when imprisonment was not a common event in the lives of black men with less than a college education.
… The failure of the great experiment in mass incarceration is rooted in three fallacies of the tough-on-crime perspective. First, there is the fallacy of us and them. For tough-on-crime advocates, the innocent majority is victimized by a class of predatory criminals, and the prison works to separate us from them. The truth is that the criminals live among us as our young fathers, brothers, and sons. Drug use, fighting, theft, and disorderly conduct are behavioral staples of male youth. Most of the crime they commit is perpetrated on each other. This is reflected most tragically in the high rates of homicide victimization among males under age twenty-five, black males in particular. Some young men do become more seriously and persistently involved in crime, but neither the criminal-justice system nor criminologists can predict who those serious offenders will be or when they will stop offending. Thus the power to police and punish cannot separate us from criminals with great distinction, but instead flows along the contours of social inequality. Visible markers like age, skin color, and neighborhood become rough proxies for criminal threat. Small race and class differences in offending are amplified at each stage of criminal processing from arrest through conviction and sentencing. As a result the prison walls we built with such industry in the 1980s and ’90s did not keep out the criminal predators, but instead divided us internally, leaving our poorest communities with fewer opportunities to join the mainstream and deeply skeptical of the institutions charged with their safety.
Second, there is the fallacy of personal defect. Tough-on-crime politics disdains the criminology of root causes and traces crime not to poverty and unemployment but to the moral failures of individuals. Refusing to resist temptation or defer gratification, the offender lacks empathy and affect, lacks human connection, and is thus less human than the rest of us. The diagnosis of defective character points to immutable criminality, stoking cynicism for rehabilitative efforts and justifying the mission of semi-permanent incapacitation. The folk theory of immutable criminality permits the veiled association of crime with race in political talk. But seeking criminality in defects of character, the architects of the prison boom ignored the great rise in urban youth unemployment that preceded the growth in murder rates in the 1960s and ’70s. They ignored the illegal drug trade, which flourished to fill the vacuum of legitimate economic opportunity left by urban deindustrialization. They ignored, too, the fact that jobs are not just a source of economic opportunity but of social control that routinizes daily life and draws young men into a wide array of socially beneficial roles. Lastly, they ignored the bonds of mutual assistance that are only weakly sustained by communities of concentrated poverty. Thus young men would return home from prison only to easily surmount once again the same stunted social barriers to crime that contributed to their imprisonment in the first place.
The final fallacy of the tough-on-crime perspective is the myth of the free market. The free market fallacy sees the welfare state as pampering the criminal class and building expectations of something for nothing. Anti-poverty programs were trimmed throughout the 1970s and ’80s, and poor young men largely fell through the diminished safety net that remained. For free marketeers, the question was simply whether or not to spend public money on the poor—they did not anticipate that idle young men present a social problem. Without school, work, or military service, these poor young men were left on the street-corner, sometimes acting disorderly and often fuelling fears of crime. We may have skimped on welfare, but we paid anyway, splurging on police and prisons. Because incarceration was so highly concentrated in particular neighborhoods and areas within them, certain city blocks received millions of dollars in “correctional investment”—spending on the removal of local residents by incarceration. These million-dollar blocks reveal a question falsely posed. We never faced a choice of whether to spend money on the poor; the dollars diverted from education and employment found their way to prison construction. Our political choice, it turned out, was not how much we spent on the poor, but what to spend it on.