Part 1: Bibliographic Entry:
Cullen, James, et al. “The History of Mass Incarceration.” Brennan Center for Justice, 15 Nov. 2021, https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/history-mass-incarceration.
Part 2: Terminology/Keywords:
Public safety rationale
Racial rhetoric – “war on drugs”, “tough on crime”
1994 Crime Bill
Part 3: Précis:
This article aims to explain a brief history of mass incarceration, outlying how it started. He starts off by saying that the United States incarcerates more people than any nation in the world. He, then, goes into more detail about how we got to where we are in regards to our prison system. The Founders of the United States wanted to protect people from governments taking too much power, noted by the fact that four of the first ten amendments were to protect the accused and convicted. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville came to study America’s penalty system. He saw that they were trying to be humane to their inmates, but also noticed its irony as Americans still had slaves. But as time went on, things began to digress, as America used prisons as a punishment for breaking any law. This is supported by NYU Law’s Brennan Center that examined 1.46 million people in jail and found that 39% of them were not of any public safety threat.
America’s reputation of incarcerating people at a higher rate than comparable countries began in the 1970s when politicians began to prey on people’s racist ideologies. Nixon would use terminology like “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” to justify the large prison population. However, the numbers increased dramatically with President Reagan in office. When he left office after serving two terms, the prison population grew from 329,000 to 637,000, with the majority of inmates being communities of color. Another component to mass incarceration were laws like the 1994 Crime Bill, which gave funding to states that ultimately led to more people in prison, more cells, and more aggressive policies.
The article ends on a more hopeful note, saying that incarceration rates are down because both parties are agreeing that mass incarceration is a mistake, as it is expensive and ineffective. It’s important to note that while prison population rates are decreasing, it will take a very long time to fully combat the problems we currently have and much effort on all levels of the government to incite change.
Part 4: Reflection:
I think this article clearly lines out the reasons why we are in the predicament of mass incarceration. Based on years of policymaking, it looks as though America encourages putting people into prison. It’s fascinating that using terms like “war on drugs” and “tough on crime” can be used to immediately validate placing hundreds of thousands of nonviolent people into jail. The article not only highlights that jail is used as a place to put any rule breaker into, but that’s it’s not effective in creating a better society. It’s also extremely sad to read that communities of color are being disproportionately affected. What can we do as a society to ensure this isn’t the case? I wonder what other laws have been passed that have led to so many people being placed in prison? Also, what actions are currently being taken to combat this problem? Why aren’t more people being placed into rehabilitation centers that can make people better versions of themselves, rather than placing them in a cell?
Part 5: Quotables:
“America’s approach to punishment often lacks a public safety rationale, disproportionately affects minorities, and inflicts overly harsh sentences”
“The U.S. incarceration rate is nine times higher than Germany, eight times higher than Italy, five times higher than the U.K., and 15 times higher than Japan”
“Other countries do not use prison as a one-size-fits-all solution to crime”
“Politicians from both parties used fear and thinly veiled racial rhetoric to push increasingly punitive policies”
“In Texas, for example, the state incarceration rate quadrupled: In 1978, the state incarcerated 182 people for every 100,000 residents. By 2003, that figure was 710”
“Changes were spurred in part by laws like the 1994 Crime Bill, which gave states money to perpetuate policies that bred bloated prisons”
“While it received little attention, the rise of mass incarceration was a phenomenon that has affected the entire country for four decades”
“Racial disparities in the prison population have also fallen. This is the product of a bipartisan consensus that mass incarceration is a mistake”