Everything You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong

Adaner Usmani

The US carceral state is a monstrosity with few parallels in history — destroying untold millions of lives and families in just a few decades. But most accounts fail to understand how it was created in the first place, and how we can finally dismantle it.

Interview by
Editors

There is a growing consensus that American mass incarceration is not only wrong but a moral abomination.

With an incarceration rate exceeding 700 people for every 100,000, Americans have built a monstrosity that has few parallels in history — destroying untold millions of lives and families in just a few decades. Future generations will no doubt wonder how the wealthiest, most developed country in the world ever tolerated such barbarism.

But when it comes to the policies necessary to deconstruct this leviathan, there’s not much consensus at all — even among the Left. And that’s likely because no one can agree on what exactly led to its construction in the first place.

Published in 2010, Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow was a sensation. Here, finally, was the answer to why we built so many prisons: racism. The American carceral state, in her telling, was just another form of racialized social control little different than Jim Crow before it.

Naomi Murakawa’s The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America (2014) and Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (2016) was built on this thesis, going so far as to argue that, despite what the statistics say, there was no crime wave in American in the 1960s through 1980s. It was, in fact, a racist fiction created by political elites of both parties in order to support the mass jailing of black Americans.

But, as John Clegg and Adaner Usmani argue in Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy, this is an answer that looks less persuasive every year. Their groundbreaking essay “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration” argues that, far from a fiction, the crime wave that swept America beginning in the late 1960s was very real. And the mass imprisonment of Americans was the direct, though not necessary, consequence.

Clegg and Usmani argue that the choice to respond to that crime wave with more incarceration lay not in white racial animus but in the failure to build an egalitarian welfare state in America — the direct result of the underdevelopment of this country’s labor movement.

Without a strong working-class movement to force the state to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, social democracy was a dead letter in America. This meant the American state was left with only one other, far less expensive option to address the violence brewing among the poorest and most vulnerable: prisons.

Jacobin spoke with coauthor Adaner Usmani about how and why mass incarceration was built, and why today, nothing less than a revived labor movement is the only way to tear it all down.


ED

What makes your story of mass incarceration in America so different is that it starts not with diabolical reactionaries, but with a staggering rise in violent crime in America beginning in the 1960s that — despite recent narratives — was very much a real phenomenon and not some middle-class delusion. What were the conditions that led to this enormous spike in crime?

AU

You’re right that our story starts earlier, not with what politicians were doing, but with what they and the public were responding to, which is this large, decades-long increase in the rate of violence in the United States, starting in the 1960s. Crime rose massively in the United States to levels much higher than those seen in any other developed country in the postwar period.

Our view is that, to understand the reasons for the rise in violence to exceptional levels, one has to understand certain exceptional facts about American economic development. This is why we focus so much in the first half of our piece on the comparative political economy of the United States.

Let me just explain what I mean. We all know that America’s industrial boom is a story of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Industry in the United States was taking off, with America becoming an economic power in the world.

Key to our story is the observation that, in the United States, this process unfolds differently than it does elsewhere. European countries all industrialized with their own peasantries. But in the United States, the peasantry was locked in the Jim Crow South in the plantation economy — they didn’t migrate north in large numbers to take those jobs. Plantation owners were adamant that they stay. So the booming industries in the North sought labor where they could find it — Italian and Polish immigrants and whoever else.

The reason this is so important to the story of crime is that it is at the heart of the labor market difficulties that African Americans confront once they do later migrate to American cities. Jobs from the first wave of industrialization didn’t employ African Americans in substantial numbers. Once Jim Crow collapsed and African Americans finally came to the North in large numbers, those jobs had begun to disappear. What’s more, African Americans arrived in cities and labor markets in which European immigrants had already established themselves, and in which they used America’s highly local institutions to hoard jobs, housing, access to schooling, and other scarce resources.

That’s how I would start the story of the rise in violence in the United States.

ED

Most people know about the black migration from the South to the North starting at the end of the First World War. But your argument is that, as poorly prepared as Northern cities were for that influx as far as job openings and housing go, there was a second African-American migration from the South in the 1940s and early ’50s that truly brought things to a boil.

AU

I think that the 1940s through ’50s migration from the South, numerically, was the more significant one. And it was rooted in the final, complete death of Southern agriculture — the cotton plantation economy — as well as the wartime economic boom in the ’40s and then the postwar boom in the ’50s and ’60s.

It’s important to remember that it’s not just a South-to-the-North phenomenon. It’s also an intra-South phenomenon — people moving from the rural South to the urban South as well. It’s a story about both urbanization and migration. It’s a significant transfer of people from agriculture to industry that happens in the ’40s and ’50s.

The way to think about all this is to observe that American industry never replaces — for African Americans in general and African American men in particular — the jobs lost to the collapse of agriculture. That is the single-fact summary of our argument about the rise in violence. In the early twentieth century, employment rates for African American men are higher than comparable rates for white men. By the middle of the twentieth century, the picture has totally changed, and African American neighborhoods in American cities are blighted by chronic joblessness.

By the early ’60s, you see the beginnings of employment troubles in Northern and Southern cities for low-skilled men. You see the start of the economic transformation that becomes full-blown deindustrialization already beginning in the 1960s. And so that’s one very important thing that is happening to these new migrants to American cities — the jobs that were once relatively easy to find for low-skilled young men start to leave the city, first to the suburbs, but very quickly to the Sunbelt and abroad.

ED

So, if you’re a African American migrant in the ’40s or ’50s, you’re coming to a Northern city that already is over capacity in terms of jobs?

AU

There is job growth in the 1940s and the 1950s, but by the 1960s, it’s starting to stagnate and decline, particularly for low-skilled black men. At the same time, people with wealth are leaving American cities and moving to the suburbs, stimulated by a massive construction boom subsidized by the federal government. And that means that cities are starting to hemorrhage their tax revenues and become more difficult places in which to live.

So, the way to think about this is that, by the 1960s, jobs are leaving American cities, and people with money are leaving American cities. And those two things obviously start to reinforce each other, and social services, public services in cities start to deteriorate. And this is the context in which crime and violence start to increase — that’s the big argument of the first half of the piece. To understand the rise in crime that happens in the 1960s through the 1990s, you have to understand the crisis of the American city in the North and South.

ED

Now, so far, we’re still in the standard left-liberal explanation, because what you just described was white people being horrified that black people have arrived and all fleeing to the suburbs to get away. But your essay has a strong critique of that “white flight” narrative.

AU

Our criticism is not at all that there isn’t racial animus in white America — there’s no doubt that there are plenty of racist people in white America. The question is not whether this exists, but what it explains.

The point that we try to emphasize is that white Americans — both racist and not — are leaving American cities. Yes, white Americans are leaving areas of American cities in which black Americans have arrived in great numbers — but they’re also leaving, in large numbers, areas of American cities and neighborhoods where black Americans have not arrived, or not arrived in great numbers. They’re leaving for suburbs because cities are starting to tax them to pay for social services. All that white middle-class Americans have to do is jump across city lines and flee the grubby hands of these city governments.

Fleeing the prying hands of the state is, sadly, a perfectly rational, ordinary thing for a middle-class person to do. Today, white Americans have far less racist beliefs than they did in the 1960s, but this pattern still prevails everywhere.

Our point is that, to understand the flight to the suburbs, you have to understand the fiscal limits on American cities. Because they are not able to tax the suburbs, it was and remains rational for people with wealth to jump ship. In this sense, you don’t need racial animus to explain something like white flight. Many white Americans were animated by it, of course. But in a world in which no white American had been committed to white supremacy, I’m not sure these patterns would have looked all that different.

ED

So, when exactly does the violent crime wave begin?

AU

Crime begins to increase in the 1960s. There’s some evidence that juvenile delinquency has begun to increase by the late 1950s. But really, the kinds of crime that come to public attention — violent crimes and serious property crimes — those begin to increase in the early 1960s.

ED

What I find really shocking is that, in your last article for Catalyst, you reviewed two books by well-respected scholars that argued that this crime wave is a fiction of white racial animus to justify a carceral crackdown. You’re extremely skeptical of that.

AU

Yes, very skeptical. There are two questions here.

First, are they right that the crime wave was fictitious? As we explain in the article, they are not. Our best data suggest otherwise. Mortality statistics and surveys of victims point in the same direction and indicate staggering increases in the level of violence.

If this is right, it raises a second question. Why do so many scholars deny the increase in crime, if it was real?

My view is that they deny it because they believe that to accept it would be to suggest that the rise in punishment was the simple, necessary result of the rise in crime. In other words, they deny it because they want to emphasize that there was something politically mediated about the rise in punishment — that the rise in punishment was not a necessary response to the rise in crime, but something that politicians chose to do.

Now, my view is that these critics are right to say that punishment is political, in the sense that the state is making a policy choice to punish when it could conceivably do other things. But this need not imply that the crime wave was concocted by these politicians.

Our view is that the right way to think about this problem is to observe that the crime wave was a necessary but not sufficient reason for the rise in punishment. To understand the American punitive turn, one has to understand why the American state responded to the very real rise in violence in a particular way — with penal policy rather than social policy. And this, as the big argument of the second half of our piece goes, is explained by the underdevelopment of social policy in the United States. The United States has mass incarceration because it doesn’t have social democracy.

ED

But the liberal left today is really afraid of this argument. They see it as a slippery slope to justifying a police state.

AU

Exactly, and this is the critical mistake that these scholars make, which is to assume that to observe that crime is occurring is to justify a punitive response to that crime. But the second thing just doesn’t follow from the first.

Yes, if crime is occurring, one could make the argument that the right way to respond to crime is through police and prisons. But one could also make the argument that the right way to respond to crime is through a combination of rehabilitative penal policy and generous social policy. Nothing in the observation that crime is occurring entails the conclusion that mass incarceration or mass policing is justified. And that has been a basic conceptual confusion. It has marred a lot of this critical literature.

ED

Let’s get back to the 1960s, because at the same time the crime wave was happening, you have, for the first time in many years, the liberal left taking power in the United States. This is the Kennedy-Johnson “Great Society” era. In your earlier Catalyst essay, you point out that a lot of what the Great Society liberals proposed as solutions to the crime wave were, in fact, rooted in broad social democratic analysis with big, social democratic prescriptions. Do I have that right?

AU

I think that’s absolutely right. If you read the Kerner Commission’s report on the riots, or even if you read the Katzenbach Commission’s report on crime in American cities, a lot of the language there is thoroughly social democratic, and the analysis is structural in nature. Fundamentally, the argument is effectively the argument that I was making before, which is that the root problems here lie in unemployment and poverty in American cities.

The issue in the 1960s was not, as these books I reviewed argued, that liberals had a flawed analysis or even had the wrong policy prescriptions. It is fundamentally — and this is the big argument of the piece — a story of the incapacity of American liberals to carry out the social policy they supported.

As we argue in the piece, to understand that incapacity, one has to appreciate the enduring underdevelopment of social democracy in the United States. Fighting crime with social policy is expensive. It requires massive redistribution from rich to poor. That’s something that has just not been a political possibility in the United States over the course of the twentieth century.

ED

So, is the problem that the Democratic Party is actually a very poor replacement for an actual social democratic party? If we had a labor movement that hadn’t been so violently repressed, if it had managed to form its own party, as labor movements in the rest of the developed world did, and bring about social democratic reforms, would that have prevented the carceral state from developing?

AU

Yes. I think that if you had to pinpoint a root cause, it is the underdevelopment of the American labor movement. It has meant that the closest thing we have to what’s thought of as a social democratic party in the United States is the Democratic Party, which is this terrible coalition in the 1960s of Southern Democrats and Northern liberals. It is nothing like a social democratic party either in form or content. That fact profoundly constrained American social policy before the 1960s, in the 1960s, and it continues to do so to this day.

To be clear, one of the big arguments of our essay is that the failure to fight the root causes of crime shouldn’t just be understood as a failure of the 1960s. A focus on the 1960s encourages a focus on one or two key actors or one or two administrations. That is a mistake. The underdevelopment of social policy in the United States is a persistent feature of American government since at least the 1930s, which is when the divergence in spending on social policy between the United States and the rest of the developed world becomes clear.

In fact, as I said already, the story of the rise in violence — not just the penal response to violence, but the rise in violence itself — is also, in some significant part, a story of the underdevelopment of American social democracy. In other words, if we’d had a labor movement that could have forced social policy in the United States through its own party, you might never have had something like the rise in crime and violence that you saw in the 1960s. By that, I mean that the social problems that lay behind the rise in violence may never have been allowed to fester as they did. It is an optimistic counterfactual, but it is far from an absurd one.

ED

But how is it possible that the divergence begins in the 1930s — isn’t that when the New Deal starts to make the Democratic Party look more like a social democratic party?

AU

That’s certainly true. There is an increase in spending over time. The United States in 1940 is spending more on social policy than it was in 1930, no question.

But here I am thinking about the contrast between the United States and Europe. As we show in our piece, it is between 1890 and 1930 that the gap between America and European countries first opens up. And that’s because 1890 to 1930 is a period of massive tumult and agitation in Europe, from the growth of the European social democratic movement, revolutionary movements, the World War, massive working-class formation, strikes — that’s the kind of turmoil that has no parallel in the United States.

It is that turmoil that I think explains this great divergence between the European countries and the United States.

ED

The way our readers probably think of Great Society liberals like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who famously wrote the Moynihan Report, is that his answer was a bunch of racist bullshit, since it’s a narrative touted by conservatives like Rush Limbaugh all the time.

AU

There is a great book on the Moynihan Report and its reception, which has a wonderful essay by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin. The point that Rustin makes about the report is that, in its analysis, it is basically social democratic. Rustin criticizes the report for not being more explicit about the policies it would recommend, but he specifically defends Moynihan from the charge that the report was racist. He argues that, in Moynihan’s analysis, the root cause of violence and disorder is obviously economic. Causality runs first from mass unemployment and poverty to family breakdown and then whatever problems follow from that.

It’s worth remembering, after all, that the Moynihan of the mid-1960s helped write LBJ’s famous address at Howard University, which ends in a call for jobs, homes, welfare, and health care. That’s way to the left of anything a centrist Democrat would say today. I’d take the 1960s Moynihan over Joe Biden any day.

ED

Another one of your criticisms of the New Jim Crow thesis and others like it is that the idea that our carceral state was built by federal actors is just wrong.

AU

Yes. In some ways, this is the biggest mistake that those books you cited earlier by Elizabeth Hinton and Naomi Murakawa make, which is that they make the story of mass incarceration entirely a story of what was happening inside presidential administrations and the federal government. Really, the story of mass incarceration is written at the state and local levels. It is a story of what happens at the state and local levels, because these are the governments that made most of the relevant legislation, that housed most of the prisoners, and that funded most of the police. The federal government matters to penal policy, but only at the margins.

Note that this is not the same as saying that the federal government doesn’t matter. It does, but in a complicated way. It is important, but not because it is the agent of mass incarceration, as these books imply. Rather, the federal government matters because it is only the federal government that has the fiscal authority to advance aggressive, social policy solutions to the problem of violence.

So the way we tell the story is this: when the federal government failed — for all of these long, deep, enduring historical reasons — to fight the rise in violence with social policy, it fell to local and state officials to do something about crime. After all, as we show in the piece, a lot of these officials (DAs, sheriffs, judges, state legislators) are democratically elected, and their constituents were panicking about crime. They had to do something about it if they were to be electable.

And, at the local and state level, it’s just impossible to fight crime and violence with social policy. Social democracy is just far too expensive for localities, and so it falls to these authorities to fight the rise in crime with the penal tools at their disposal instead.

ED

Why can’t a municipality or state in this country do their own full employment program and do their own welfare state?

AU

Obviously, the basic reason that they can’t is the same one that I gave earlier, which is that the underdeveloped character of the labor movement in the United States makes it very difficult to redistribute from rich to poor. That applies as much to localities as it does to the national scene. But there are some additional reasons that are very important here.

One reason has to do with compositional facts about where the rich live and where the poor live. Crime concentrates in poor areas, but the rich don’t live in those areas. The rich live elsewhere. And so, if you’re looking at a poor locality, like a Ferguson, Missouri, the mayor of Ferguson can’t tax rich people living in St. Louis, let alone rich people living in San Francisco or in New York, to fund social programs in Ferguson. At the local level, what governments are dealing with is always tight budgets, very little money. And when you have very little money, you cannot fight crime at its roots — fighting crime at its roots takes massive amounts of investment.

This is really the critical point. As we explain in the piece, fighting crime in punitive ways is relatively inexpensive because it means fighting crime in a hyper-targeted way — governments arrest, charge, convict, and imprison only a small fraction of poor people. And, whatever the outcome, the penal arms of the state deal with them only over a short period of their life. Social programs, on the other hand, are investments in all poor people (and sometimes, to be politically feasible, all people) for a much larger duration of time. They are thus much more expensive, as we explain in the piece. The United States has the largest penal state in world history and the stingiest welfare state in the advanced world, but it still spends anywhere from four to twelve times what it spends on penal policy on social policy. Localities just don’t have enough tax revenue.

The second reason that localities find it difficult is that they have to worry that rich people will run away with their money. They’ll either hide it or they’ll stop investing or whatever else. This is true for all states in capitalist societies in general, but the problem is much more acute at the local level, since the costs of exit for rich people at the local level are so low. If you’re in charge of a city government, and you’re thinking about raising taxes on rich people, well, rich people can just jump across jurisdictional lines and flee to the suburbs, and then you’re stuck. And so that problem is much more acute at the local level than at the national level, because the costs of fleeing the local state are much lower than the cost of fleeing the national state.

ED

I want to get back to the 1960s moment, because you have a really shocking quote from Martin Luther King, Jr, after the Watts riots — he’s enraged about the police for not doing enough to fight crime before the riots. In your piece, you and Clegg mention the professionalization of police forces in the 1960s recommended by liberals, when today’s activists tend to view such changes as reactionary. You seem to be arguing that a lot of that professionalization was progressive.

AU

Well, one way of thinking about it is that the only thing worse than being policed by paid professionals is being policed by underpaid amateurs. And that was the story in the 1950s and the 1960s — the police were brutal. So there was no shortage of legitimate grievances that required very significant reforms of policing.

Alongside that, however, was the view that King was articulating, which was the view that crime was a massive, growing problem. Not especially for rich, white Americans, but for the poor and disproportionately black communities in which crime concentrated. Residents of those communities were extremely upset about rising crime and violence. This is clear if you look at public opinion polls, as we do in our piece. Recent histories of Washington, DC, and Harlem over this period also show that residents were enraged about the level of crime and violence. Their most common complaint was not about over-policing, per se, although over-policing was also a problem and has become much more of a problem as the carceral state has grown. But one of the most common complaints in this period was one of under-protection by the police, the systematic and racist under-protection and neglect of these communities.

This is something that I think the Left needs to understand. It is possible to complain both about heavy-handed policing and about under-policing and under-protection. Because even today, there is a lot of very serious violence in the United States. St. Louis is, today, the fifteenth most violent city in the world. A program of “prison and police abolition” makes a lot of sense in a world in which you think crime is fictitious and concocted by racist politicians. But it makes much less sense in the world in which we live.

There are a few reasons we don’t think much about this today. First, crime has declined massively in the United States. It’s not an issue that dominates American politics in the way that it did in the 1980s and ’90s. The other reason is arguably that most of the academic left is composed of relatively well-off people in gentrifying cities who don’t have firsthand experience of this kind of crime and violence anymore. This has hampered our ability to think credibly about police reform. No doubt, reform is urgent. Policing in America is barbaric. But reform must address issues of over-policing and under-protection.

ED

So what did Black Lives Matter get right, and what did they get wrong?

AU

What Black Lives Matter (BLM) gets right is that American criminal justice today is degrading and inhumane. It is punitive in the extreme. I think that BLM has the right indictment of the way in which we do criminal justice. We live in the largest police state the world has ever seen, and that should scandalize all of us. BLM has been instrumental in bringing that to people’s attention.

What activists associated with BLM often miss is that the problem of the overdevelopment of the American penal state is intimately linked to the problem of violence, and thus to the underdevelopment of the American welfare state. It is the underdevelopment of social policy that explains both high levels of interpersonal violence and the brutally violent state response to it. So they are absolutely right that there needs to be a reform program aimed at the criminal justice system. But we must also transform how we do social policy in the United States. In other words, we need a reform program that responds not just to the fact that people are brutalized by police and prisons, but also to the fact that people have legitimate grievances about high levels of violence.

ED

But the problem you run into is that, if you take everything you just said, and you go to the American Left and say, “The solution to our huge carceral state is to vote Bernie Sanders and support the labor movement,” at the end of the day, a person who wanted to argue with you could look at American prisons and correctly point out that black people are 12 percent of the general population — but they’re an enormous part of the prison population. So how could the solution be that simple?

AU

Yes, that is a great question. To be clear, the questioner is absolutely right to identify the racial disparity in mass incarceration as one of its most significant and outrageous features. One of the things that makes American mass incarceration such a blot on American civilization is its combination of severity and inequality. Because it is both so severe and so racially unequal, you see statistics like the fact that something like 33 percent of African American men born in a certain period will go to prison over their lifetime. Prison becomes a normal event for a certain demographic.

So the questioner is absolutely right that mass incarceration is, in some ways, defined by racial injustice. Now, the intuitive way that one would wage war against this kind of racial disparity is to argue that we should eliminate racism inside the criminal justice system. The criminal justice system exhibits these racial disparities, so let’s do away with racism at each stage of the criminal justice process. Let’s do away with racist police, let’s do away with racist prosecutors, let’s do away with racist juries, let’s do away with racist judges, let’s do away with racist prison guards, et cetera.

But the problem is that, in a world in which we did away with all racism inside the criminal justice system — and, to be clear, that racism does exist; there’s lots of evidence that similarly situated black and white offenders are treated differently — even in that world, racial disparities would still be outrageous. That’s because something like 70 to 75 percent of the racial disparity is explained by racial inequality in the life course before people make contact with the criminal justice system. Because African Americans live in America’s worst neighborhoods and at the bottom of its class structure, they are more likely to commit crime than white Americans. A reform program that says nothing about that fact and speaks only about racism inside the criminal justice system will render leftists ineffective warriors against racial disparities in punishment.

ED

What you just said is a very controversial statement — so controversial that, for many people on the Left, if they hear that, they’ll reject it out of hand, or suspect you’re pushing some reactionary political vision. That’s a major barrier to getting the Left on board.

AU

Fair enough. Let’s take this in three stages. The first stage is an evidentiary stage: What evidence do we have that this is true? The second stage is an analytical stage: What explains it? And the third stage is a normative stage: What do we do about it?

So, the first question, which is a very good question, is: How do we know that this is true? How do we know that African Americans are overrepresented in the ranks of criminal offenders? The reason this is a really good question is because we know that police are racist. So, as many academics say, we should be skeptical of crime data that suggests that African Americans commit more crime than do white Americans. That’s a totally reasonable worry. If, say, police decide to patrol more in certain African American neighborhoods and less in white neighborhoods, we’ll observe that African Americans commit more crime, even if underlying levels of offenses are the same. Or, if they deliberately tend to apprehend black offenders but not white offenders, we’d observe a racial disparity that doesn’t reflect differences in behavior. So it’s right to worry about the reliability of police data.

As we explain in the article, what criminologists do to deal with that difficulty is that they cross-check police statistics against statistics we get from other sources. Primarily, we have two other ways of estimating racial disparities in crime commission. The first is through victimization surveys. These are surveys of people who have been victims of crime. The racial disparities that we estimate from these surveys are not that different from the racial disparities we get from police data. The second way is to look at mortality statistics. So, we can look at people who have been victims of homicides. And because we know that most homicides are intraracial, we can use the victimization disparity, which is the ratio of black Americans who have been victims of homicides and compare it to white Americans who’ve been victims of homicide, and use that disparity as an estimate of the disparity in violent offending. That disparity is also similar to the disparity we estimate from police data.

Our best academic work on this subject suggests that the racial disparity is real in an evidentiary sense: most (but not all) of the observed racial disparity in arrests, convictions, and incarceration reflects actual racial disparities in offending.

Once we’ve established that racial disparity is real — that it is a fact rather than simply a concoction of racist policing — we have to ask the second question: What explains it? As I have argued already, and as we argue in the piece, African Americans live disproportionately in neighborhoods in which poverty is highly concentrated, in which jobs are scarce, schools and housing are subpar, and community institutions are under-resourced. It is this inequality that explains disparities in crime. Crime is an index of oppression. Racial disparities in crime are an index of racial disparities in oppression.

We can then ask a third question, which is a normative question: What should we do about it? What is the right policy response? I think the reason that people find the issue of crime so challenging to talk about is because they’re unable to disentangle these three very different questions.

So many people on the Left seem to believe that simply to note the fact of racial disparities in crime is to have argued that impoverished racial minorities are to blame for these disparities. And so, because we want at all costs to avoid victim blaming (or, worse, justifying mass incarceration), we ignore racial disparities in crime.

But this is preposterously bad normative reasoning! Simply noting the fact of racial disparities in crime does not commit you to victim blaming or to supporting mass incarceration. That requires additional arguments, which we reject. In fact, if you take our analysis seriously, our view is that there is only one reasonable response to racial disparities in crime, and that is to demand that the state tackle the racial inequalities that are its root cause, rather than to tackle it punitively once it manifests as crime.

ED

So, to that activist who’s thinking, “Look, maybe you’re right and the current lefty view on this stuff is incorrect or incomplete. But is it really that important to get right?” Why can’t they just nod along with other activists who say the problem is enduring white supremacy and a racist criminal justice system? You’re potentially asking them to alienate a lot of people.

AU

If these activists are serious about tackling the injustice of American mass incarceration, then they have to take seriously the root causes of that problem. If you want to change the world, you have to interpret it correctly first.

Take the example we were discussing earlier. If we are serious about undoing the enormous, scandalous, black-white racial disparity in incarceration rates, we have to take seriously the fact that this is mostly a consequence of racial inequality outside the criminal justice system rather than inside the criminal justice system. No amount of implicit bias training, minority hiring programs, et cetera, will get the job done.

So, my message to these activists is that it is much more important to be right than to be favorably retweeted. This is far too important an issue to be treated as a popularity contest.

ED

Okay, so if it’s beyond just racial disparities, can you tell me what American incarceration looks like now for white Americans?

AU

Well, American incarceration rates are extreme for white Americans as well. They’re extreme by any reasonable standard. The rate of white incarceration in America is higher than the incarceration rate in any European country. And so, in this sense, white Americans also live under a historically barbaric penal state.

ED

What does incarceration look like in a state like Idaho, which is almost entirely white?

AU

Right, Idaho has a very high incarceration rate! It’s maybe a little over the national average of about 700 people per 100,000. Even if it were its own country, it would be on par with the United States and one of the most barbaric states, in these terms, in world history.

ED

This certainly flies in the face of a lot of the narratives.

AU

It certainly poses a problem for the narrative that American incarceration is a system of racialized social control. Such a large share of the population that suffers American penal excess is white. This is much more than simply “collateral damage.”

And remember two things. First, as we describe in the piece, racial disparities in punishment both increased and then decreased during the era of mass incarceration. In that sense, the era of mass incarceration is not defined by rising racial disparities. In fact, what changed most dramatically over this period were class disparities.

Second, it’s not true that rates of incarceration have increased for all classes of African Americans. They’ve increased dramatically — extremely dramatically — for very poor African Americans in particular. But they’ve actually gone down for college-educated African Americans between 1970 and the present. In this sense, a certain fraction of the African American community has escaped the worst consequences of mass incarceration.

ED

Well, what about the “police don’t check your class card” response?

AU

It has some truth to it. All else equal, a black person is much more likely to be harassed by the police than a white person is. Of course. There is a lot of good social scientific evidence that policing is marked by all kinds of racial disparities.

But this is different from arguing there are no class disparities in policing. There are, and they are quite pronounced.

Partly, this is because policing is so neighborhood-based. For instance, stop-and-frisk is, above all else, a program to saturate certain high-violence neighborhoods with police, with some terrible consequences for the residents of those areas. Of course, if you can escape these neighborhoods, you can also escape much of the awful consequences of policing in these neighborhoods.

Another way of putting this is that the more severe the penal outcome we are discussing — say, from a spectrum of police harassment to actual imprisonment — the less true this statement is. So, someone like Henry Louis Gates can be harassed and even arrested in his own home. And that is a scandal, of course. But as Gates himself said in a recent interview, his experience was, in the end, nothing like the experience of those who have less class and status than he does.

That is a decent summary of the story of the last fifty years of American criminal justice. As the carceral state has grown, the burden of its punitiveness has fallen very disproportionately on the poor and not the rich.

ED

At the end of the article, you mention that the American liberal left is beginning to sound more like the American right in terms of punishment. And one of the things you talk about is the “victim’s rights” movement. Can you explain what you mean by that, and why that is a problem?

AU

Let me first just say something sociological about this talk of “victim’s rights” among progressives. And then I’ll say something about how I think we should deal with it.

I think the reason that it’s been common to hear this kind of talk from progressives is because the American left has bought the standard story about mass incarceration. And in that standard story, people who are in American prisons are mostly not really guilty of anything. Maybe they are guilty of smoking or dealing a little weed, but they’re not really guilty of anything very severe. And, as a consequence, you can be both a prison abolitionist and also extremely punitive about serious forms of crime — you can hold those two positions simultaneously.

However, once you understand that American prisons are actually full of people who have committed serious offenses, you have to rethink either your criticism of American mass incarceration or your punitiveness. The American left has not yet had to think this through, because we are still in the thrall of the standard story.

Now, I think we should still be committed to the position that American mass incarceration is barbaric. But to do this, once we dispense with the standard story, we will have to rethink our punitiveness. We will have to rethink how a state should deal with offenders who have done terrible things to other people.

What we argue throughout the article is that if somebody is committing a serious crime, this is typically a consequence of the fact that the state and society have failed that person over the course of their lives. The right thing to do would have been to address those deficits by means of social policy. That’s a start, but it’s not a sufficient answer to the problem, because there will always be people who commit serious offenses. We should have something to say about what the state should do about these people. I worry that many activists haven’t really thought about this problem.

So how should we think about it? The short answer is that we should think about crime as a kind of public health problem. The state has an obligation to protect victims, of course. It has a duty to protect people from both present and future crimes. This establishes cause for incapacitation and confinement. But the state also has a duty to offenders. It must respect their rights. So it only has the right to confine them in the least punitive way possible, and it must always do so with an eye to their rehabilitation and release as soon as is feasible.

ED

As with many other institutions, the American left finds itself looking to the Nordic countries on this question: they have the very lowest incarceration rates in the world. But I want to ask you, do they achieve this by policies that would be hard for Americans to swallow — even the American liberal left?

AU

What the Nordics do very well is that they attack crime at its roots by means of social policy — through social democracy. Now, that is not very controversial or tough for the American left to endorse. But what the Nordics also do is that they treat offenders like human beings with significant rights and freedoms that are not surrendered when they commit a crime. Unsurprisingly, rates of recidivism in the Nordic system are significantly lower than rates of recidivism in the American system.

Now, one of the things that we have to note about this is that the Nordics spend much more per prisoner than the United States. A system of humane incarceration would actually be a system in which we spent much more on prisoners — in which we attended to the various problems that have led them to crime. It would be a system in which we treat them like human beings rather than denounce them for the awful things that they’ve done.

ED

But politicians here can argue that, sure, our system might be brutal — but it keeps murderers and rapists from committing crimes again by just locking them up and throwing away the key. In Nordic countries, there are no life sentences — they get back out. How do we even begin to make that case to the public?

AU

It’s a question that the American right posed to the public very effectively as crime was rising. The Right was able to argue something to the American public that liberals didn’t manage to counter. But ultimately, the progressive response to this kind of argument requires an affirmation of the idea that if we invest resources in people, if we invest in their rehabilitation, if we invest in their physical and mental health care, if we invest in giving them opportunities upon return, we have little to fear.

It amounts to an affirmation of the rehabilitative ideal. This ideal came under severe attack in American policy-making circles — there’s been no alternative to the punitive view for a long time. The progressive position has to be an affirmation of exactly the opposite view — that there is an alternative. It may, in fact, be an expensive alternative, but so be it. We must take from the rich and give to the poor. We must invest in the lives of the poor and the oppressed in ways that we do not do. This is the way forward.