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How Mass Incarceration Was Built in the United States — And How We Can Undo It

John Clegg

With an incarceration rate exceeding 700 people for every 100,000, Americans have built a prison monstrosity that has few parallels in history — destroying untold millions of lives and families in just a few decades. We need to study the economic origins of this mass incarceration system in order to dismantle it.

When it comes to the policies necessary to deconstruct American mass incarceration, there’s not much consensus — because no one can agree on what exactly led to its construction in the first place.

Interview by
Doug Henwood

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 prison 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) were built on this thesis, going so far as to argue that, despite what the statistics say, there was no crime wave in the United States 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.

Coauthor John Clegg spoke with Doug Henwood for the Jacobin Radio podcast “Behind the News” earlier this year. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.


DH

We have a conventional understanding, or at least on the Left there’s a conventional understanding, of how the United States ended up with so many prisoners and such a giant carceral machine. Michelle Alexander now has served a role as the canonical author of that story. What is that story, and what issue do you have with it?

JC

Alexander’s story, which, as you mentioned, has become the canonical story, both in the popular and the scholarly literature, begins with a Republican political strategy in the late 1960s, sometimes referred to as “the Southern strategy,” to appropriate votes from the Democratic Party, specifically those of Southern whites who were aggrieved by civil rights movement victories in the ’60s. The idea is that they’re essentially appealing to this Southern Democratic vote with a law-and-order policy that’s really a dog-whistle politics that is about criminalizing African Americans. Alexander’s argument is that the criminalization of black and brown life is a strategy that these law-and-order politicians in the ’60s and ’70s were deliberately implementing under the aegis of the so-called War on Drugs.

Richard Nixon announced the War on Drugs in the early ’70s, and very soon, many politicians were adopting the same language. The idea is that this filtered down through state legislatures, prosecutors, judges, and police, turning what would have been misdemeanor offenses into felonies, increasing sentence lengths, reducing parole, etc. The story is essentially a political one, mostly at the federal level, where Republican actors were seeking a new strategy for winning the South. And this, at base, is held to have led to the roughly sevenfold increase in the US prison population from 1970 to 2008.

DH

Something that’s forgotten by most people is that we started the ’70s with a relatively low incarceration rate, by today’s standards. And there was even talk, as I recall, of the end of incarceration or something like that — and, of course, that all changed rather rapidly.

JC

Absolutely. In the 1960s, US incarceration rates were comparable to incarceration rates in other developed countries, and they were even falling in many places. There was a widespread sense that the reform of the prison system would mean a decline or even, as you mentioned, an eradication of the prison. Yet two decades later, the United States is incarcerating people at roughly an order of magnitude above levels in comparable developed nations.

DH

Are you rejecting that story entirely, or do you just find it incomplete and somewhat unspecified?

JC

We’re not rejecting the whole story Alexander and others tell. Many of the details, such as the actual fact of a Republican Southern strategy, the reality of the War on Drugs, we would never contest. It is also undoubtedly true that mass incarceration has criminalized black and brown life in America today, that the racial disparity of incarceration is extremely high, and that much of this did actually occur through the changes to law and sentencing policy identified in Alexander’s story, although we’d argue that changes in prosecutorial and police powers also played a key role. However, we do identify a number of problems with this story. First, the focus on the War on Drugs has been misleading. Drug prisoners, those arrested for drug offenses, are a very small portion of the overall prison population in the United States.

DH

It’s much more important in the federal system, but the federal system is much smaller than the state system.

JC

Yes, another issue we have with the standard story is that it tends to focus on the federal government. Thus, I mentioned the Southern strategy, which was concocted at the federal level. People also point to the big federal crime bills in the ’80s and ’90s as the key infrastructure of mass incarceration. But the vast majority of prisoners in the United States today are held in state prisons and local jails, compared to which the federal prison system is tiny. There’s a larger share of drug prisoners in the federal system, as you mentioned, than in these state and local carceral systems. But even in the federal system, drug prisoners are a minority. And in the overall prison population in America, only a small percentage of inmates have been arrested for drug offenses. It depends how you classify it, but it ranges from a minimum of about 5 percent of the prison population to a maximum of about 20 percent of the prison population, which means that the vast majority of prisoners today are not in prison because of offenses that could be linked to the War on Drugs. The two largest groups in prison are people who are arrested for violent crimes and people who are arrested for property offenses.

DH

That’s an important fact which gets overlooked in the Alexander narrative, that there was a really sharp increase in the rate of violent crime, and that most people who are arrested, are arrested for violent or property offenses, not just because they had a bag of weed.

JC

Certainly. The reality of the rise of crime, beginning in the late ’60s and continuing through the ’70s and ’80s, is something that we emphasize against a typical reluctance in leftist and liberal work on this phenomena to acknowledge crime. I mean, the standard story about the War on Drugs is really about an invention of crime. According to this story, new laws are criminalizing activities that wouldn’t otherwise lead to a prison sentence. Thus, all we need to do is change these laws, and we can get rid of the problem: we can address mass incarceration simply by releasing all these people who clearly shouldn’t be in prison anyway.

Of course, in our view, most people shouldn’t be in prison. We’re not supporters of incarceration as a strategy for addressing crime. But what we do want to say is that the real rise in crime reflected a broader social crisis that America was facing in the ’70s and ’80s. Denying that context by emphasizing the drug war as this state-manufactured intervention is, in our view, to miss the fundamental story. Between 1960 and 1980, homicide rates doubled in America, property crime rates increased about threefold, and violent crime increased about fivefold. That major crime wave, which we think is unmistakable in the historical evidence, is played down by many liberal and progressive commentators, in part, I think, because they assume that acknowledging the reality of crime is to somehow play the blame game, to blame individuals rather than the system.

We want to push back strongly against this assumption. For us, crime is an index of oppression. To deny the reality of crime is tantamount to denying the reality of the causes of crime, which are, in our view, poverty, inequality, social vulnerability, and exploitation. The Left should not be in a position of denying such things.

DH

Before we move on, I want to emphasize, as somebody old enough to have lived through a lot of that, I do recall it. Even if you get down to the state and local level, there are plenty of reactionary politicians who are using fear of crime to promote a broadly reactionary agenda. They’re making the most of it from their own right-wing point of view, so we shouldn’t completely dismiss that. It wasn’t just Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

JC

Certainly not, and we wouldn’t want to deny the explicitly racist dimension of much of that political positioning. But we would emphasize that the Right does not have a monopoly on law-and-order politics in the era. In the ’70s and ’80s, it really became a hegemonic politics. By the mid-’90s, the Democrats under Bill Clinton were outdoing the Republicans in their punitiveness, in their emphasis on locking up as many people as possible and throwing away the key.

DH

You also have an interesting chart in your paper measuring punitiveness and public attitudes. Can you talk about what happened with public attitudes on punitiveness?

JC

As I mentioned, Republicans are at the forefront, in the ’70s, of driving a law-and-order agenda, and that clearly does have a dog-whistle, racist component to it. But to understand why it becomes hegemonic, you have to understand that all politicians, not just Republicans, are under pressure from their constituents to address a real crisis that’s unfolding, particularly in the cities, in the early ’70s, where levels of crime and violence are sharply rising. What we see in the public opinion data is an increasing demand for something to be done about crime, and that’s a demand that we find equally growing among white respondents to public opinion surveys and black respondents to public opinion surveys. Yet that demand is filtered by the American political system in one direction only, and that is in a punitive direction.

If you ask people what they want to be done about crime, they will often be open to many different suggestions, including both punitive policies, like longer sentences, tougher policing, etc., and social policies, like better social services and more jobs. That combination of demands we see across the board, with both black and white respondents in public opinion surveys, but in the 1970s and ’80s, it’s only the punitive demands that we see getting actually taken up by political actors. Then we have an argument about why that is, which is kind of the core of the paper, really.

DH

How do you explain the rise in crime from, say, the early-to-mid-’60s into the early ’90s? The peak murder year in New York City was ’91 and ’92, and it’s gone down about 90 percent from that peak. But how do you explain that incredible rise, which is really without modern precedent?

JC

I have to say that our explanation for the rise in crime is still tentative in some ways. But the existing literature and the existing data suggest that the crime rise beginning in the late ’60s is primarily an urban phenomenon. The main factor appears to be what is sometimes referred to as “the urban crisis” in the 1960s and ’70s. The cities are being drained of resources, as white flight is taking tax dollars to the suburbs at the same time that the Second Great Migration is leading to an influx of poor African Americans from the South, and at the same time that progressives are actually winning some social policy reforms at the city level that are designed to address some of these problems.

But it’s precisely in those attempts to use local taxes to address a crisis of poverty, concentrated specifically in African American neighborhoods, that you see tax flight increasing. So the attempt by homeowners is to avoid the increased taxes by fleeing to the suburbs as well as avoiding African Americans. There’s an economic dimension to white flight as well as a racist one. The infrastructure of the city, from social services and education to housing and police, is being sapped of resources at the same time that cities are undergoing vast transformations and increased levels of segregation. And this is the furnace in which we see a big increase in the homicide rate, for instance, and in other measures of interpersonal violence beginning in the late ’60s and really continuing up into the early ’90s.

DH

And we shouldn’t forget that suburbanization, the white flight that you speak of, was subsidized by public policy for decades.

JC

Absolutely. The federal government laid the infrastructure by laying the federal highway system in the ’50s. They also subsidized it through loans to suburban constituents and state governments.

DH

And at that same time, we also saw manufacturing employment moving out of the cities, first to the Sunbelt and then out of the United States, so employment opportunities for people without high educational qualifications were disappearing.

JC

Absolutely, that’s a central part of our argument — the lack of employment opportunities, specifically for lower-skilled men beginning in the ’60s. We often think of the ’60s as this period of prosperity, but that prosperity was very unequally distributed. And if you look at African American men, you see declining rates of employment already beginning in the 1960s.

DH

Why did these underlying economic developments — the disinvestment in cities, suburban flight, the disappearance of jobs in the urban core — why did this kind of systematic deprivation take the form of a rising crime rate?

JC

Crime is a complex thing to explain, but if we look specifically at interpersonal violence, we find that it is very correlated with two things. On the one hand, poverty, and particularly concentrated poverty, and on the other hand, inequality, including racial inequality and segregation. We find that consistently across time, looking at the United States today, looking at the United States in the ’60s. We don’t fully understand all the reasons for that, but one important reason is that when people lack opportunities, specifically when they lack opportunities for jobs and stable incomes, then an illegitimate economy comes to replace the legitimate one. People have incentives to take risks in finding illicit forms of income, and that itself drives a lot of the criminalized behavior that we see rising in the 1960s around the drug trade, around illegal gambling and prostitution, etc.

But on top of that, the illicit economy has a tendency to resolve disputes through violence, because they obviously can’t appeal to law enforcement, and African American communities specifically have not been able to rely on responsive police services.

DH

The news that African American communities have historically been underpoliced will shock people who are used to, say, Mike Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policies and constant harassment and shootings by police of unarmed black guys. How were they underpoliced?

JC

Yes, it seems that we have forgotten that predominantly white police departments historically had a tendency to ignore crime in African American communities, while racist white courts tended to offer more lenient sentences for “black-on-black” crime. James Foreman Jr shows that, in the 1950s, the black community in DC was often appealing to the police to pay more attention to problems that they faced, especially in terms of interpersonal violence. Obviously, you see a reversal of that tendency in more recent decades, with an overpolicing approach and an overly brutal policing approach. In the ’50s and ’60s, there was the brutality, but people who committed crimes in African American communities, and specifically with African American victims, often went unpunished. This resulted in higher levels of interpersonal violence, as people who feel they can be victimized with impunity will tend to take preemptive measures to defend themselves. However, the shift from underpolicing to overpolicing didn’t really change that dynamic, as the brutality remained constant, and police were no more trusted to resolve conflicts than before.

DH

Of course, there’s the great counterfactual. If we had a generous welfare state, and social protections and investment in poor regions that prevented all these geographical disparities from deepening, then the story might have been very different, right?

JC

There are actually two counterfactuals we’re interested in. One counterfactual is, how would the rise of violence in the 1960s and ’70s have been avoided? There, we look at the institutional responses to the Great Migration, deindustrialization, and suburbanization, and the fact of how social policy is organized on a geographical basis in the United States, so that essentially the city, the institution that’s responsible for dealing with crime, is the least well funded, the least capable of redistributing of any level of the American government. There’s not enough wealthy people to tax. Chicago can’t tax the dot-com billionaires because they don’t live there, and if the rich are leaving, there’s actually no way to fund the kinds of social services that would be necessary just to maintain a minimum level of social infrastructure in a deindustrializing city.

At the same time, the other counterfactual we look at is, did they have to respond to the rise in crime and violence punitively? And we argue that they didn’t. There’s no necessary reason that the state should take this kind of harsh approach, given that there are other options. If you look at European countries at the same time, which also experienced a rise of crime in the 1960s, you don’t see a ramping up of the prison population and a clamping down in the same way that you do in the United States, in part because in Europe, there are other social policies that are being put in place. Social-democratic redistribution is there to absorb some of that pressure from below. In the United States, without a plausible capacity (fiscal and political) to address the root causes of crime, popular pressure to do something, anything, about high rates of violence — specifically in deprived urban communities — leads to a situation in which there is only this one option of punitiveness left on the table. We argue that the key to really understanding that is the relative cheapness of punishment when compared to social policy.

DH

You make the point that, yes, it may cost more to incarcerate someone than it does to educate them, but on the other hand, there are very many fewer people who are incarcerated than educated. So, if you work out the numbers, it’s a lot cheaper to build the carceral state.

JC

Absolutely. Today, the United States spends a huge amount on prisons, police, and courts. Something like $250 billion is spent on that. That is a lot of money. It’s certainly a lot compared to what other countries spend. But it’s nothing compared to what the United States itself spends, in its cheap and miserly way, on welfare and other social policies. The American social policy budget is, depending on how you measure it, between 1 and 3 trillion dollars. It’s always going to be the case that social policy is more expensive than penal policy because, as you say, although the per-person costs of incarceration are high, the number of people that come into contact with police and prisons is always going to be less than the number of people that come into contact with the welfare state.

DH

We’ve seen a decline in the crime rate, a very substantial one. The incarceration rate has only come down a little bit. It’s turned down, but it’s certainly not dropping anywhere as dramatically as the crime rate has. What’s happened to keep this carceral state running?

JC

That’s not something we address directly in the paper, but we are very interested in this question of why incarceration rates have not fallen as fast as crime rates. It’s not true, as some argue, that incarceration has moved in an opposite direction to crime. If we look at the change of incarceration, which is a better comparison, because it’s a flow, like the crime rate, rather than a stock, then it becomes clear that the rate of admissions into prisons in the United States has fallen along with the crime rate. But, as you say, it has certainly not fallen as fast as the crime rate, or as it should have done by any measure of justice. America still imprisons its population at vastly higher rates than any comparable nation, even with a decades-long decline in the crime rate that has led to a decline in the incarcerated population.

To explain this, I would point, as many others have, to infrastructural and institutional persistences. Prisons, in particular, tend to have their own self-sustaining logic. There is clearly a prison industry that has a vested interest in maintaining itself, although I have to point out that private prisons are not driving this. But certainly, also, the kinds of reforms that are beginning to be implemented are not having much effect — the incremental reforms that we’re beginning to see today, reducing sentences for low-level drug offenders, especially. We don’t see much of an impact, and that’s, as I already explained, I think because those kinds of low-level offenders that are relatively easy politically to release, or to reduce the sentence length of, they don’t form a very significant percentage of the prison population.

DH

How do we get off this brutal and cruel and horrific incarceration train?

JC

That’s a big question that we’re only beginning to answer. The contribution that Adaner and I want to make is to remind us we’re living through a period where pushing back against mass incarceration is relatively easy, because crime rates are falling. But crime rates won’t continue to fall forever, and at some point, they’ll start to rise again. And at that point, we have to recognize that the way to address the enormous disparities, both in the incarcerated population and in American society more generally, which drives the disparities in the incarcerated population, requires much more than tinkering at the edges of carceral policy.

DH

Yeah, it’s not a matter of just criminal justice reform alone.

JC

Exactly. Criminal justice reform matters, but the task before us is, in fact, much greater than that. The task before us is addressing the extreme inequalities in American society that lie behind the high rates of both crime and incarceration.