Sociology in the News – The Beginning of the End of Mass Incarceration?

Bruce Western

Another post as part of my social justice series.

Bruce Western – of Punishment and Inequality in America fame – hopes so (via Chris Uggen ) in this article in the Boston Review.

"The British sociologist T.H. Marshall described citizenship as the “basic human equality associated with full membership in a community.” By this measure, thirty years of prison growth concentrated among the poorest in society has diminished American citizenship. But as the prison boom attains new heights, the conversation about criminal punishment may finally be shifting.

For the first time in decades, political leaders seem willing to consider the toll of rising incarceration rates. In October last year, Senator Jim Webb convened hearings of the Joint Economic Committee on the social costs of mass incarceration. In opening the hearings, Senator Webb made a remarkable observation, “With the world’s largest prison population,” he said, “our prisons test the limits of our democracy and push the boundaries of our moral identity.”

[Emphasis mine] One should never have a discussion of mass incarceration without connecting it systematically to social inequality. We know the statistics: 2.3 million people in US prisons and jails, largest prison population in the world with a fourfold increase since the 1980s (thank you, War on Drugs). And this increase has as much to do with class and racial inequalities as it has to do with reducing levels of criminality. So, when we talk about mass incarceration, we should actually specify: mass incarceration of young black men with limited education.

"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. The large black-white disparity in incarceration is unmatched by most other social indicators. Racial disparities in unemployment (two to one), nonmarital childbearing (three to one), infant mortality (two to one), and wealth (one to five) are all significantly lower than the seven to one black-white ratio in incarceration rates."

The system of incarceration then flows from a system of structural discrimination whereby we have witnessed the creation of a class of stigmatized social outsiders, all within the past 25 years or so. And that status as social outsider persists once released out of prison. The post-incarceration experience is one of poverty, unemployment, poor physical and mental health (Western cites a UC Berkeley study that attributes the black/white differential in HIV infection to the differential in incarceration), persistent illiteracy and diminished citizenship (in 11 states, no right to vote), failed marriages or general family instability.

Those constitute what Western calls social penalties and these tend to be intergenerational, passed on from one generation to the next. For all of those affected by the mass incarceration of young, uneducated black men, their social experience is that of reduced citizenship and social stigma where mass incarceration "forges the collective experience of an entire social group."

In order to find the root causes of this (and no, the racist explanations do not hold water, so, let’s dispense of that right now), Western examines the historical context. Here is an interesting parallel: after the end of slavery, the slavery states found all sorts of legal loopholes to limit blacks’ socio-economic and political participation, and now:

"Viewed in historical context, mass incarceration takes on even greater significance. The prison boom took off in the 1970s, immediately following the great gains to citizenship hard won by the civil rights movement. Growing rates of incarceration mean that, in the experience of African-Americans in poor neighborhoods, the advancement of voting rights, school desegregation, and protection from discrimination was substantially halted. Mass incarceration undermined the project for full African-American citizenship and revealed the obstacles to political equality presented by acute social disparity."

Did it work? Was it worth it? A lot of people would brandish criminal statistics and show that, indeed, there have been reductions in crime during the period when the country switched to mass incarceration. But, as Western demonstrates,

"When I analyzed crime rates in this period, I found that rising prison populations did not reduce crime by much. The growth in state imprisonment accounted for 2-5 percent of the decline in serious crime—one-tenth of the crime drop from 1993 to 2001. The remaining nine-tenths was due to factors like the increasing size of local police forces, the pacification of the drug trade following the crack epidemic of the early 1990s, and the role of local circumstances that resist a general explanation."

So, that’s what this society got for $53 billion and community disintegration and social dislocation (that has a price tag too). More than that,

"Several examples further demonstrate that the boom may have been a waste because crime can be controlled without large increases in imprisonment. Violent crime in Canada, for example, also declined greatly through the 1990s, but Canadian incarceration rates actually fell from 1991 to 1999. New York maintained particularly low crime rates through the 2000s, but has been one of the few states to cut its prison population in recent years."

As he did in his book, Western then explains that mass incarceration corresponds to the mass deindustrialization of the United States (similar developments followed in Western Europe). Mass incarceration was then used as a tool of management of the consequences of this economic reality. Where Western Europe has welfare systems and extensive safety nets, the United States managed the dislocations brought about by the end of the industrial era in Western countries.

Incarceration has become the solution to all sorts of social ills beyond criminality: mental illness, drug use, urban housing management failures, economic policies  that slashed spendings on social services, the end of industrial employment.

Culturally, this was reinforced by the conservative "tough on crime" rhetoric and the invention (not based on reality) of the "superpredator" (the young – implictly black – young criminal without a social conscience who could not be rehabilitated but could only be thrown in prison for as long as possible). The only functions of incarceration became deterrence (not working) and neutralization (as in crimes get committed in prison instead of outside). The policies of the war on drugs increased the length of time inmates spent in prison, especially mandatory minimum sentencing.

But it didn’t work, because, according to Western, mass incarceration is based on three fallacies:

  • The fallacy of "us versus them"
  • The fallacy of personal defect
  • The fallacy of the free market

Let me take them in order:

The fallacy of "us versus 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."

But since certain categories of the population, the disadvantaged by race and class, are subject to greater law enforcement scrutiny, they are more likely to find themselves within the criminal justice system where these disadvantaged traits get amplified (as Bourdieu would put it, their habitus – behavioral and linguistic dispositions – makes them relatively incompetent at navigating and negotiating the institutional realities of that system).

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."

As always, the personal defect rhetoric, a conservative favorite, is a great distraction to avoid having to discuss structural issues and the promotion of social justice. And if social problems are defined as issues of individual character, then, either no help is deserved, or punitive policies is what is called for.

The fallacy 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."

Of course, this did not save any money:

"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."

All this is a perfect illustration of the way social policies are botched when they are based not on social analysis but on moralistic principles with limited connections to empirical reality. This is as true for incarceration policies as it is for family policies (abstinence-only comes to mind).

But as mentioned in the beginning, it seems that things might be oh-so-slowly changing… and changes usually start at the level of discourse, then, hopefully, at the level of policy:

"There are small signs of change in the public conversation about crime, punishment, and poverty, though bold ideas have not yet penetrated the mainstream. By supporting education and treatment programs for prisoners, leaders from both parties have offered one answer to Senator Webb’s question about the future of punishment in America. In April this year, President Bush signed the Second Chance Act, which funds literacy programs, drug treatment, and other services for prisoners and ex-prisoners."

Because the reality is that, yes, more people are sent to prison more longer sentences, but at some point, they return to their communities, and then what? We just wait for the prison revolving door to work its magic and send them back in, as high recidivism rates show? Because, we send them back to the very same socio-economic reality they left, with the added bonus of the stigma of being convicted felons. Hence the reentry movement:

"The reentry movement challenges mass incarceration by reasserting the importance of rehabilitation, but deliberately stops short of recommending a reduction in prison populations."

The idea is to help former inmates with employment, education, vocational training, work readiness program so as to facilitate their transition from the prison to the job market. More than that, many former inmates need verbal and communicative skills, people skills (after all, Goffman demonstrated long ago that total institutions, like prisons, require their inmates to unlearn the basic skills of social life), as well as cognitive skills (basic reading / comprehension, writing and maths).

When done well (big assumption), these programs have good results (Western cites a number of them in the article) but they are intensive and they are too often local programs. They need to be properly funded at the very least at the state level. And this would require a complete reexamination of the underpinnings of the criminal justice system. Some immediate measures:

1) Decriminalization of drug offenses and other victimless crimes

Arresting drug dealers has no crime reduction effects because others take their place. Overall, the War on Drugs has been a massive failure on all fronts.

2) Reverse some of the policies that drastically increased sentencing : mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, truth-in-sentencing laws. Their only effect has been to increase the number of people in prison.

3) Elimination of re-imprisonment for technical violations of parole and probation (such as missing an appointment with a parole officer). Such technicalities are responsible for the majority of re-imprisonment in several states.

This corresponds to two major, yet necessary, shifts in criminal policy: facilitate reentry and scale back the size of the prison population. There seems to be more political support for the former than for the latter.

But as usual, we know that large scale social policies directed at reducing some major social issues are also necessary. Strict criminal justice policies are not enough because they do not affect the socio-economic realities that many disadvantaged communities face. We tend to have the same tunnel-visioned attitude when it comes to educational policies, forgetting that social problems and social conditions do not stay outside of the schools and that therefore education measures do not affect the surrounding social reality of communities.

A great read to which I have not justice… go read the whole thing and/or read the book!

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