August 18, 2007

Why the Prison State?

Like so many facts about the U.S. prison population, this one is eye-popping: "With 5 percent of the world's population, the United States has close to a quarter of the world's prisoners." So is this: "We have a corrections sector that employs more Americans than the combined work forces of General Motors, Ford, and Wal-Mart." Indeed, California spent half a billion dollars last year merely on overtime for its prison staff. The word "staggering" doesn't begin to describe it, nor do any of its synonyms.

Recently, Daniel Lazare and Glenn Loury wrote a pair of excellent essays on the U.S. prison-industrial complex. Some of the recited facts are familiar, but worth repeating: "In 2002 just 19 percent of the felony sentences handed down at the state level were for violent offenses." Loury, in particular, argues that imprisonment rates have risen while crime rates have fallen "not because we made a smart policy choice, but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment":
One simple measure of punitiveness is the likelihood that a person who is arrested will be subsequently incarcerated. Between 1980 and 2001, there was no real change in the chances of being arrested in response to a complaint: the rate was just under 50 percent. But the likelihood that an arrest would result in imprisonment more than doubled, from 13 to 28 percent. And because the amount of time served and the rate of prison admission both increased, the incarceration rate for violent crime almost tripled, despite the decline in the level of violence.
This isn't crime control so much as social control--twisted morality masquerading as policy. The racial disparities at work offer one signal: Black drug users are twice as likely to be arrested for drugs--and get tossed in prison once arrested--than whites, despite the fact that they don't use drugs any more than whites. (Between 1979 and 2000, white high-school seniors actually reported using drugs at a higher rate than black high-school seniors.) Loury, meanwhile, churns up this alarming study:
Analyzing arrests by residential neighborhood and police precinct, the criminologist Jeffrey Fagan and his colleagues Valerie West and Jan Holland found that incarceration was highest in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, though these were often not the neighborhoods in which crime rates were the highest.
There is no logic here. And the growth in the prison state has huge consequences. Bruce Western has pointed out that one reason U.S. macroeconomic policies can look "good" compared to Europe's is because we omit our 2 million prisoners from our unemployment and poverty rates. Studies have shown, meanwhile, that prison only breeds further crime: I've discussed one such study here, while Jeffrey Fagan and his colleagues found that "higher incarceration in a given neighborhood seemed to predict higher crime rates in that same neighborhood one year later." Again, this is not crime control. Not even close.

And that's not to mention the fact that ex-felons have utterly dismal job prospects, and, of course, can't vote: In 2000, 3.9 million Americans--one black man in seven--were disenfranchised. How many of those were black, non-violent drug users who were arrested and then barred from the polls while their white counterparts were free to toke up and continue voting for "tough on crime" politicians?

One major question here is how and why this state of affairs came to pass. Loury argues that our draconian crime-control policies are explicitly and intentionally racial in nature. He cites Vesla Mae Weaver's work, which suggests that after the Civil Rights era, opponents of racial equality focused their energies on crime policy as a way to preserve their master-race lifestyles. To this, Loury adds data showing that public attitudes on welfare and race became inextricably linked after 1965: "The association in the American mind of race with welfare, and of race with crime, has been achieved at a common historical moment."

That's persuasive, but it still seems incomplete. The War on Drugs, which has contributed more to our mass-incarceration orgy than anything else, strikes me as more than just Jim Crow for the 21st century. After all, in 1989 even Jesse Jackson was talking about using "antiterrorist policies" on drug users and traffickers, and Charlie Rangel was constantly savaging Reagan for being too soft on the drug menace. The media hyped to high heaven an article by Robert Martinson showing that rehabilitation doesn't work, and yawned five years later when he recanted. (Martinson, depressed over what he had wrought, killed himself in 1980.) There seems to be a mass frenzy at work here that goes beyond race, even if that's how it started. Sasha Abramsky's new book is called American Furies, which, I think, captures the sentiment, even if that's not a full explanation.
-- Brad Plumer 3:31 PM || ||