Livin the American Dream

It is somewhat ironic that while the United States boasts “liberty and justice for all”, over 2 million Americans are currently incarcerated. The number of Americans in prison and jail is six times higher than what it was thirty years ago, for the historically highest rate of 726 inmates per 100,000 people. This is also the highest incarceration rate in the world, with Russia following with 532 inmates per 100,000 people. When the American penal system was reformed in the mid-1800s, prison was seen as an “institutional response to potential order”.[1] Over the past two hundred years, our society has been committed to long-term incarceration as an institution intended to discipline. In his book, Race to Incarcerate, Marc Mauer investigates the evolution and expansion of America’s prison system over the past thirty years. This book, in conjunction with Tonry and Petersilia’s American Prisons at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century, proves that the current system is not working as fairly or efficiently as it should be. Factors such as race-and class-biased policies, disproportionate length of sentences for undeserving crimes, and the lack of rehabilitation efforts contribute to this system which is failing to provide American citizens with justice for all.

In the 1960s, crime rates rose due to the rapid urbanization of the American population. An urban lifestyle presents challenges not experienced in a rural or suburban setting, resulting in higher than average crime rates in urban areas. Due to increasing crime rates, a “tough on crime” agenda was developed in Washington D.C. To some Americans, this new agenda displayed an arbitrary use of authority in race-and class-biased ways. These feelings in conjunction with the rise of the civil rights and antiwar movements helped spark the demands for a fairer justice system. A large part of the “tough on crime” agenda was the “war on drugs” of the 1980s, which had an extremely disproportionate effect on African Americans. Currently, although African Americans represent 12 percent of drug users, they make up 32 percent of arrests for drug possession. A great deal of this is due to the federal drug policy on punishment for crack versus powder cocaine use. In 2002, two US senators, Orrin Hatch and Jeff Sessions, proposed a bill to raise the drug quantity necessary to trigger the mandatory minimum for crack cocaine and lowering it for powder cocaine. This would have reduced the number of crack offenders (a highly African American population) receiving the mandatory sentence but increase the number of powder cocaine (mostly Caucasian) offenders. This was an attempt to address the racial implications behind the policy on crack versus powder cocaine use. The bill was not passed in Congress. Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson of the Justice Department argued that “lowering crack penalties will signal a retreat from the battle against drug abuse”.[2]

While the incarceration rate has been consistently rising, crime rates have been fluctuating over the past thirty years. This proves that there is an inconsistent relationship between crime and incarceration rates; it does not mean that incarceration has no impact on crime, but it also doesn’t mean that incarceration has a consistently positive impact on crime. Mauer, Tonry and Petersilia reveal the hidden impacts of incarceration, and explore other disciplinary measures that would provide punishment and more effectively curb crime. Courts and prisons are reactive systems that come into play after a crime is committed, and thus do not have much influence on preventing and controlling crime. We must focus on more preventive measures to keep our citizens from landing in jail in the first place. Mauer suggests practical innovations that could address the racial-bias of the federal drug policy such as more job and educational opportunities and income support for families of low socio-economic status. While these suggestions seem overtly liberal, Mauer points out that these are the tools that the middle class uses to keep problems in the community from escalating into crime. “Most of us refrain from committing crimes each day not out of fear of a prison sentence but because we have better things to do with our lives. Families, communities, careers, and a sense of hope for the future work wonders to control crime in most instances.” [3] If we focus more on these preventative measures, shorten sentences for nonviolent and drug offenses, and provide resources and support for the 600,000 individuals returning home from prison each year, more Americans will stay out of jail. These are idealistic goals, yet new measures must be taken in order to provide an equal opportunity for justice to all Americans.

[1] Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate (New York: The New Press, 2006), 4.

[2] Ibid., 90.

[3] Ibid., 211


2 Responses to “The Race to Incarcerate”

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  2. Robin Collins on June 22nd, 2014 6:59 pm

    I havent read this whole blog but just glancing I dont see anything about ALEC.