Tackling the Leviathan


Mass incarceration policies have taken a heavy toll on American families, neighborhoods and society. In an essay for The Crime Report, in advance of publication of a major American Academy of Arts and Sciences project, Prof. Glenn Loury of Brown University, calls for a profound change.

Over the past four decades, the United States has, by any measure, become a vastly more punitive society. This expansion, and transformation, of U.S. penal institutions–which has taken place at every level of government, and in all regions of the country?is without historical precedent or international parallel.

With roughly five percent of the world's population, the U.S. currently confines about 25 percent of the world's prison inmates. The American prison system has grown into a leviathan unmatched in human history.

This is not merely law enforcement and punishment policy. It is also social policy, writ large, and a uniquely American form of social policy at that.

The present American regime of hyper-incarceration is said to be necessary in order to secure public safety. This is not a compelling argument. First, the notion that crime can be prevented by incapacitating criminals is overly simplistic. It ignores the fact that for many crimes?selling drugs, for instance–those who are incapacitated are simply replaced by others, there being no shortage of contenders vying to enter the illicit trade.

What is more, almost everyone who goes to prison is eventually released, most after just two or three years. For these hundreds of thousands of ex-offenders released each year, time behind bars will most likely have actually diminished, not enhanced, their odds of living crime-free lives: by lowering their employability, severing their ties to communal supports, and hardening their attitudes. That is, sometimes mass imprisonment actually undermines public safety.

One reason for this anomalous outcome is that incarceration in American cities is highly concentrated spatially. The ill effects for individuals of having spent time behind bars can reduce social opportunities for others who reside in the most heavily impacted communities and who themselves have done nothing wrong.

Some urban neighborhoods have as many as one in five of their adult men locked-up on any given day. Such spatially concentrated imprisonment fosters criminality because it undermines the informal social processes of order maintenance, which are the primary means of sustaining law-abiding behavior in all communities. Families living in areas of hyper-incarceration have been rendered less effective at inculcating in their children the delinquency-resistant self controls and pro-social attitudes that typically insulate youths against law-breaking.

The impact of high incarceration rates on the sustainable level of public safety over the long term is therefore ambiguous, because what happens in San Quentin need not stay in San Quentin.

The Role of Race

The role of race in this drama is subtle and important. More African American male high school dropouts are held in prisons than belong to unions or are enrolled in any (other) state or federal social welfare programs. It has been estimated that nearly 70% of African American male dropouts born between 1975 and 1979 had spent at least one year in prison before reaching the age of thirty-five.

These racial disparities in the incidence of incarceration are not accounted for solely by overt discriminatory practices (though such practices surely exist.) Rather, what might be called “tacit racism” ?malign racial neglect–seems to be the culprit. America's punishment institutions have garnered public support at times because of, and at other times despite, this massive racial disparity.

They would never have been allowed to expand to such an extent if those subject to their depredations had not mainly been people of color. Moreover, we punish for expressive, not merely instrumental, reasons. We have wanted to send a message to the “thugs” about law and order, and have done so with a vengeance. In the midst of such dramaturgy?necessarily so in America–lurks a potent racial subplot.

Defenders of the current regime put the onus on law-breakers. “If they didn't do the crimes, they wouldn't have to do the time,” it is said. Yet, this pure ethic of personal responsibility could never justify the current situation. Missing from such an argument is any acknowledgement of social responsibility?even for the wrongful acts freely chosen by individual persons.

In saying this I am not making a “root causes” argument: “he did the crime, but only because he had no choice.” Rather, I am arguing that the larger society is implicated in his choices because we have acquiesced in arrangements which work to our benefit and his detriment, and which shape his consciousness and sense of identity in such a way that the choices he makes, choices which we must condemn, are nevertheless compelling to him. Put simply, the structure of our cities with their massive racial ghettos is a causal factor in the production of deviancy amongst those living there.

Here's a “narrative defining' question for the reader: should we understand the racial disparity of punishment in America as an accidental accretion of neutral state action applied to a racially divergent social flux–the chips having fallen as they may, so to speak?

Or, alternatively, is this powerfully salient feature of contemporary American social life better understood as the residual effect of our history of enslavement, violent domination, disenfranchisement and discrimination?

In other words, is the massive racial inequality in the incidence of punishment in this country a necessary evil, given our need for order maintenance? Or, is it an abhorrent expression of who Americans have become as a people at the dawn of the 21st century?

As an African American male, a baby boomer born and raised on Chicago's South Side, I incline toward the latter view.

Glenn C. Loury, Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences, Department of Economics, Brown University, is co-project leader, with Prof. Bruce Western of Harvard University, of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences project, The Challenge of Mass Incarceration in America,” which is published in a forthcoming special issue of Daedalus.

Read the Daedalus issue here.

Photo by Andy Callahan via Flickr.

Comments are closed.