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.

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