Yesterday, the National Research Council published a massive 464-page report that looks at the extraordinary four-decade rise of incarceration in the United States and concludes that all of its costs — for families, communities, state budgets and society — have simply not been worth the benefit in deterrence and crime reduction. The report, which was commissioned by the MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute of Justice, is a devastating confirmation of the ground-breaking work of Heather Ann Thompson, Michelle Alexander, Bruce Western and others on the American mass incarceration state -- what Alexander has called 'the New Jim Crow.' Emily Badger has a good summary of it in today's Washington Post.
1 out of every 100 American adults is now in prison or jail -- the highest in the world, and 5 to 10 times higher than other Western democracies. Nearly 1/4 of the world's prison population is in the United States. But this actually undercounts how many of our citizens are caught up in this system, because it doesn't include people on probation or parole:
One must keep in mind that most of those nearly 8 million people are young, black or Latino, and swept up into the criminal justice system because of small-scale drug possession crimes and racially-targeted policing. The consequences, for these individuals and their families and communities, are devastating: they lose access to public housing, student loans, Food Stamps, and -- in far too many states -- the right to vote and serve on a jury. They also generally lose access to employment.
If a nation's government budgets tell us something about what that country values, what Americans now care about is abundantly clear: militarism abroad, and incarceration at home. State spending on corrections has increased 400% since 1980, with state prison populations growing by 475%. This has taken place during a time of declining crime rates -- and there is no evidence that mass incarceration has contributed in any way to that decline. There is plenty of evidence of its devastating impact on families, communities, and public priorities. The vast majority of these arrests have been for small-time drug violations, particularly for people of color, even though their use of illegal drugs is no greater than that of whites.
Stunningly, in many states the criminal justice system has become the primary provider of health care, substance abuse treatment, mental health services, job training and education for low-income adults. If you've ever wondered where all the funding for public higher education has gone, the answer is clear: the mass incarceration state. This is just as true in blue states like Massachusetts, as it is in red states in the South and West.
Much of the barbarity of American life in recent decades has been revealed in the past 10 days, in all of its ugliness -- the mass incarceration state, the death penalty, and the willful racial ignorance of those who interpret our laws. My country tortures (its own people, as well as others), condemns millions of children to lives of poverty and ill-health, and maintains a racial caste system with the taser, the gavel, the syringe, and the morally abhorrent myth of its own color-blindness. It also auctions off its political system to the highest bidder. As I get older, I'm finding it harder and harder to even understand, let alone feel, patriotism.
- Mark Santow
- I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.