The standard story is that mass incarceration is a system of racialized social control, fashioned by a handful of Republican elites in defense of a racial order that was being challenged by the Civil Rights Movement. “Law and order” candidates catalyzed this white anxiety into a public panic about crime, which furnished cover for policies that sent black Americans to prison via the War on Drugs. It is difficult to overstate how influential this story has become. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which makes the case most persuasively, has been cited at more than twice the rate of the next most-cited work on American punishment.3 In a review of decades of research, the sociologists David Jacobs and Audrey Jackson call this story “the most plausible [explanation] for the rapid increase in U.S. imprisonment rates.”4
Yet this conventional account has some fatal flaws. Numerically, mass incarceration has not been characterized by rising racial disparities in punishment, but rising class disparity. Most prisoners are not in prison for drug crimes, but for violent and property offenses, the incidence of which increased dramatically before incarceration did. And the punitive turn in criminal justice policy was not brought about by a layer of conniving elites, but was instead the result of uncoordinated initiatives by thousands of officials at the local and state levels.
So what should replace the standard story? In our view, there are two related questions to answer. The first concerns the rise in violence. Partisans of the standard account argue that trends in punishment were unrelated to trends in crime, but this claim is mistaken. The rise in violence was real, it was unprecedented, and it profoundly shaped the politics of punishment. Any account of the punitive turn must address the question that naturally follows from this fact: why did violence rise in the 1960s?
The key to understanding the rise in violence lies in the distinctively racialized patterns of American modernization. The post-war baby boom increased the share of young men in the population at the same time that cities were failing to absorb the black peasantry expelled by the collapse of Southern sharecropping. This yielded a world of blocked labor-market opportunities, deteriorating central cities, and concentrated poverty in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. As a result, and especially in urban areas, violence rose to unprecedented heights.
This pattern of economic development generated a racialized social crisis. But this raises a second question: why did the state respond to this crisis with police and prisons rather than with social reform? Violence cannot be a sufficient cause of American punishment because punishment is just one of the ways in which states can respond to social disorder. Some states ignore crime waves. Others seek to attack the root causes of violence. Why did America respond punitively?