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September 3, 2015

"The simple truth about why mass incarceration happened"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective recent Vox piece by German Lopez. Here are excerpts:

How could US politicians possibly think it was a good idea to incarcerate millions of Americans starting in the 1980s, creating the system of mass incarceration we have today?

It's a question that gets tossed around a lot nowadays, with varied answers — from claims it was an attempt to control the population to arguments that private prisons created a profit motive for locking up millions of Americans.

But there's a much simpler explanation: The public wanted mass incarceration. It's easy to forget now, but the politics of crime were huge in the 1990s.  According to data from Gallup, never before or after the nineties have so many Americans said that crime is the most important problem facing the country today.

Americans had a very good reason for these concerns.  From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, crime was unusually high.  The country was still coming off what was perceived as a crack cocaine epidemic, in which the drug ran rampant across urban streets and fueled deadly gang violence.  So Americans, by and large, demanded their lawmakers do something — and politicians reacted with mass incarceration and other tough-on-crime policies.

It's very easy in hindsight to consider this an overreaction — now that we know crime began its decades-long decline in the early 1990s, and now that research has shown that mass incarceration only partly contributed to this decline.  But people didn't know that at the time. They didn't know crime was about to begin its long-term drop, and the research on mass incarceration was far from conclusive. Politicians thought crime would get worse, not better.

In fact, there were warnings at the time that things were on the verge of getting worse. One prominent concern in the 1990s — based on what turned out to be very bad social science research — suggested that there was an incoming epidemic of superpredators, violent youth who would rob and kill people....

In this context, it was expected that all politicians — liberal and conservative — take a tough stance on crime.  That's partly why liberals like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders supported the 1994 crime law that contributed to mass incarceration.  It's why dueling candidates for governor in the liberal state of New York campaigned on who could be tougher on crime.  And it's why practically every state passed tough-on-crime policies throughout the 1980s and 1990s....

Popular demand for tough-on-crime laws in the past doesn't in any way excuse the devastation lawmakers inflicted on millions of people through mass incarceration and other policies.  But based on voters' concerns in the 1990s, if a politician didn't contribute to the problem back then, he or she may not be prominent enough to run for president today.  That's how America ended up with mass incarceration — and the seemingly contradictory Democratic presidential candidates for 2016.

September 3, 2015 at 10:06 AM | Permalink



You know what also happened during the 1980s and 1990s? There was a massive AIDS epidemic that was running rampant through America. We didn't respond by killing and locking up all the homosexuals. Maybe in the minds of some people we should have but we did not. We did not.

So the claim that Americans had a /factual/ basis for being fearful is bullshit. They could have been fearful of a lot of things but one wonders why this? Why crack?

The answer is because Americans were more concerned about what poor black people stuck up their noses than what rich white people stuck up their ass.


Same as it ever was.

Posted by: Daniel | Sep 3, 2015 11:36:28 AM

What grounds would there be to lock up "all homosexuals" exactly?

The people confined did commit crimes. The breadth of the punishments was a concern and anti-drug efforts since the late 19th Century had a racist character to them. So, I'm in no way suggesting the effort was free from blame.

But, there is a reason why white meth sellers, e.g., are put in prison over gays. And, even poor black drug sellers were not KILLED writ large, surely not every black person in the inner city. So, the homosexual reference is ill advised. A more credible comparison would be why some subset of criminals or potential criminals were treated in a certain way. Cf. some white collar criminals causing millions in harm and threatening the life and well being of lots of people vs. some drug mule, for example.

Posted by: Joe | Sep 3, 2015 12:26:15 PM

As stated before, a Secretary of Defense argued the Defense budget was set by the threat of the Soviet Union not by us. It is the same with crime. Explode the crime rate after coddling criminals in the 1970's. You will need prison space in the 1990's.

As to AIDS. There was actual unemployment among internal medicine doctors and half the beds in NY hospitals were empty in 1980. AIDS comes along. Full employment in medicine. Beds at 110% capacity overnight. I think lawyers will do what doctors ask for health. So I do not blame lawyer rent seeking for the AIDS epidemic. I blame doctor rest seeking. If doctors said, quarantine, as they might with leprosy or tuberculosis, the legal system would have gone along. They did not. Patient Zero, a flight attendant, had 2000 sex partners. Instead, doctors supported confidentiality. That precluded partner tracing as in syphilis or gonorrhea. So no prevention, but chronic disease management, bringing $billions to the medical profession. The Supremacy is not addressing medical rent seeking. Too big. Too dangerous, with doctors being smarter, more violent and crazier than lawyers.

In Cuba, Castro did something right. He set up AIDS camps, which were comfortable by Cuban standards, but ones one could not leave. No AIDS epidemic in Cuba.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 3, 2015 5:51:07 PM

I used to get forced into Mass Incarceration every Sunday at the Cat O Lic Church. I would rather be in jail than listen to those pedophile priests up on the pulpit. I am glad that the blog is bringing the topic up.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Sep 4, 2015 12:51:55 AM

Daniel's right to call bullshit on this weak apology for America's binge on hyper-punitive policies.

Opportunistic, demagogic politicians did as much to incite fear of crime as criminals ever did.

Posted by: John K | Sep 4, 2015 9:12:13 AM

What is the crime rate where the pro-criminal commentators live vs where they work? If it is low, they need to shut up, and move to the ghetto. Report back on their attitude after having to run for their lives every night.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 4, 2015 9:38:59 AM

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