Over the past 40 years, America’s incarceration rate soared. Starting in 1972 and only leveling off in 2010, the “relentlessly punitive spirit” of locking up more criminals for longer terms accelerated prison growth. Fueled by mass incarceration as the politically sanctioned method to confine those convicted, the system expanded.
What this led to, until very recently, was an insistence that higher crime rates could best be prevented by a policy of warehousing as confinement, rather than rehabilitation or community-based programs. The latter attempts, finally, have begun to supplant the dominance of what was less a system of rehabilitation, but one far more bent on meting out punishment.
Criminologists Todd Clear (Rutgers) and Natasha Frost (Northeastern) began this book in 2008, when policies still led to a relentless and unprecedented increase in those put behind bars. Until a few years ago, those entering prison outnumbered those freed from prison. While, they argue, no single rationale articulated the policy leading to “the great punishment experiment”, the doubling of crime rates in the late ’60s, the threat of unrest by African American males, despair at urban decay, and pressure for politicians to take a bolder stand all contributed to the rise of the massive penal system in place today.
What began in the early ’70s as a get-tough approach appeared benign in retrospect. Clear and Frost compare US penal policies since then to “a drunk whose life descends increasingly into the abyss.” Inflexible, even cruel attitudes hardened. “Thresholds of punitiveness people never thought our democracy would ever have to confront became a part of official policy: life without parole and death penalties for young people; lengthy detention before trial; humiliation and long periods of extreme isolation during confinement; decades behind bars for minor thefts and possession of drugs.”
The authors title this approach as “the Punishment Imperative”. A war on drugs replaced that of the Great Society’s war on poverty; as the Vietnam conflict subsided as far as the US was concerned, another series of battles led to a war on crime as a bipartisan priority. Victims’ rights movements drew attention to attacks by those who had been released from prison. The media and politicians agreed that this issue captured public attention. A bonus was that working- and middle-class jobs emerged, and in turn, hard-pressed rural communities lobbied for the employment brought by new prisons.
Four points combined to sway the public and those charged with building and sustaining the system: 1. Rehabilitation was seen as a failure; 2. A few habitual, career criminals were assumed to commit most crimes; 3. These “active offenders” often eluded apprehension and conviction; and 4: Imprisoning such offenders prevented crime. Keeping more people inside prison, therefore, appeared a logical solution.
Both professors concur that this rationale and the policy of mass incarceration were never presented as a clear solution to the rise in crime during the ’60s, however. Instead, the political establishment and law-and-order advocates combined to deter offenders, and thereby discourage those who might think they could get away with wrongdoing. Deterrence through heightened penalties and swifter justice, into the ’80s, resulted in more people being locked up than before.
By the middle of the Reagan era, the war on drugs took over as the public policy priority. Most of those entering federal prisons then were convicted for drug offenses, and sentences lengthened. By the ’90s until around 2010, requirements that violent offenders serve 85 percent of their time were common, so sentences for most prisoners likewise lengthened.
This pushed up higher numbers of those imprisoned. By 2002, Americans represented a quarter of the global population behind bars. At that rate, seven percent of all Americans would be incarcerated at some point. By 2006, annual costs for housing, feeding, and guarding inmates averaged nearly $30,000. Ninety percent of “correctional dollars” sustained mass incarceration.
Violent offenses themselves could range widely, from rape, murder, or armed robbery to “intimidation”. Property and drug offenses likewise spanned a wide variety of actions. The war on drugs and related crime spurred massive increases in those jailed. Half of those incarcerated were under the age of 35, and 90 percent younger than 45. Ninety percent of those imprisoned were male; African Americans comprised nearly half of this cohort. One in eight black men in their late 20s, at these rates last decade, could expect to be behind bars sometime.
As compiled by the authors, these facts add up to a sobering sum. While (a persistent if predictable lack in a book marketed for those who run and challenge the criminal justice industry) the lay reader may wish for more of a personal touch in a serious study full of analysis and data, the usefulness of this treatise for those learning about criminal justice remains evident. Clear and Frost scrutinize the paradigm shifts and get-tough crackdowns coolly, as professors will. This straightforward, reasoned compilation of the many problems and some suggested solutions for the failure of mass incarceration features, as may be wise, a lack of emotion or the human-interest anecdote. Full of lists and charts, with a well-documented text, this study does not obscure the authors’ sympathy for those who, locked up or on the outside, have suffered during the war on crime and drugs in ways that too few politicians have sought to assuage or alleviate.
These tough-on-crime decisions, as the public gradually learned of their impact on not only prisoners but their families and their communities, led gradually to a backlash against such long terms. For, it appeared that rehabilitation had been eliminated or reduced to nearly nothing, compared to the insistent policy that incarceration and deprivation had to persist as self-evident reasons why prisoners had to serve their time in as inauspicious a setting and mindset as possible.
One factor that does not receive the attention I expected is the behind-the-scenes clout of prison guards and their strong unions, backed by law-and-order politicians with deep coffers for gubernatorial campaigns: these continue to exert strong influence on many elections and many referendums when prison reform issues are set before voters. Frost and Clear point to the 2000-2010 dramatic drops in crime rates, and the post-2008 recession, as two key factors easing the pressure to confine so many behind bars.
Impacts widen beyond prisons and prisoners. Social networks and personal support can crumble, especially in poor areas. Denial of public housing, food stamps, child custody, and federal financial aid for college to those convicted of drug-related offenses exacerbates the negative impacts on those seeking, as the authors emphasize, “reentry” into society. They note an encouraging shift lately from labeling those coming back from prison as “felons” or “parolees” to those seeking a path to stability.
However, as their conclusion investigates, Clear and Frost caution that even if drug-related offenses are reduced and early-release incentives lessen the “length of stay” prisoners must serve, the replacements for mass incarceration may carry their own troublesome effects. If confinement ebbs, surveillance grows. Social control over parolees by “justice reinvestment strategies” can create its own burdens. Social services may not match the needs of the most deprived communities which have been most weakened by incarceration. Incentives may sound appealing, but managing the programs designed to watch over released offenders carries its own difficulties, especially when straitened budgets and hawkish, wary taxpayers bring their own limits to whatever programs might be mooted.
After all, rehabilitation and recidivism are difficult to predict. “Demonization is even now a constant risk for any public servant who seeks reasonable means to control prison costs.” If a few high-profile offenders repeat their crimes once released back on the outside, politicians and policy makers who backed alternatives will likely suffer the consequences from a vindictive public and a frenzied media.
As a final observation, one may wonder how the new technologies, as humble as ankle monitors or as lofty as drones, will shape the future of the law-and-order entities entrusted with supervising those released back into the community. Released prisoners constitute a target group few sympathize with unless they share by blood or friendship their fate and their troubles.
This short, efficiently conveyed study cannot delve into all of the ramifications of how to integrate those returning to society, however, The Punishment Imperative attests to the need for a better way to manage the millions that our nation have, for too long, relegated to simply lock up, forever.