Justice  /  Q&A

Everything You Know About Mass Incarceration Is Wrong

The US carceral state is a monstrosity with few parallels in history. But most accounts fail to understand how it was created, and how we can dismantle it.

... something like white flight. Many white Americans were animated by it, of course. But in a world in which no white American had been committed to white supremacy, I’m not sure these patterns would have looked all that different. ED So, when exactly does the violent crime wave begin?

... something like white flight. Many white Americans were animated by it, of course. But in a world in which no white American had been committed to white supremacy, I’m not sure these patterns would have looked all that different. ED So, when exactly does the violent crime wave begin?

AU: Crime begins to increase in the 1960s. There’s some evidence that juvenile delinquency has begun to increase by the late 1950s. But really, the kinds of crime that come to public attention — violent crimes and serious property crimes — those begin to increase in the early 1960s.

What I find really shocking is that, in your last article for Catalyst, you reviewed two books by well-respected scholars that argued that this crime wave is a fiction of white racial animus to justify a carceral crackdown. You’re extremely skeptical of that.

AU: Yes, very skeptical. There are two questions here.

First, are they right that the crime wave was fictitious? As we explain in the article, they are not. Our best data suggest otherwise. Mortality statistics and surveys of victims point in the same direction and indicate staggering increases in the level of violence.

If this is right, it raises a second question. Why do so many scholars deny the increase in crime, if it was real?

My view is that they deny it because they believe that to accept it would be to suggest that the rise in punishment was the simple, necessary result of the rise in crime. In other words, they deny it because they want to emphasize that there was something politically mediated about the rise in punishment — that the rise in punishment was not a necessary response to the rise in crime, but something that politicians chose to do.

Now, my view is that these critics are right to say that punishment is political, in the sense that the state is making a policy choice to punish when it could conceivably do other things. But this need not imply that the crime wave was concocted by these politicians.

Our view is that the right way to think about this problem is to observe that the crime wave was a necessary but not sufficient reason for the rise in punishment. To understand the American punitive turn, one has to understand why the American state responded to the very real rise in violence in a particular way — with penal policy rather than social policy. And this, as the big argument of the second half of our piece goes, is explained by the underdevelopment of social policy in the United States. The United States has mass incarceration because it doesn’t have social democracy.

But the liberal left today is really afraid of this argument. They see it as a slippery slope to justifying a police state.

AU: Exactly, and this is the critical mistake that these scholars make, which is to assume that to observe that crime is occurring is to justify a punitive response to that crime. But the second thing just doesn’t follow from the first.

Yes, if crime is occurring, one could make the argument that the right way to respond to crime is through police and prisons. But one could also make the argument that the right way to respond to crime is through a combination of rehabilitative penal policy and generous social policy. Nothing in the observation that crime is occurring entails the conclusion that mass incarceration or mass policing is justified. And that has been a basic conceptual confusion. It has marred a lot of this critical literature.

ED Let’s get back to the 1960s, because at the same time the crime wave was happening, you have, for the first time in many years, the liberal left taking power in the United States. This is the Kennedy-Johnson “Great Society” era. In your earlier Catalyst essay, you point out that a lot of ...