Vol 1 No 3 Fall 2017

Did Liberals Give Us Mass Incarceration?

The United States imprisons more people per capita than any comparable society, past or present. It is alone among advanced countries in putting its citizens to death, in commonly sentencing prisoners to life without the possibility of parole, in its use of solitary and quasi-solitary confinement, and in annually killing hundreds of its citizens in police encounters. In light of the fact that the US is also the richest society in world history, these are staggering facts.

Conventionally, mass incarceration is explained by reference to the right-wing turn in American politics — to a revanchist, Nixon- and then Reagan-led revolution in criminal justice. Leading accounts, notably Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, argue that this punitive turn re-established a system of social control over African Americans that had been challenged by the Great Migration and the civil rights movement.1 In Alexander’s account, a white and mainly Southern elite overturned black gains by means of mass incarceration and punitive policing. Others, noting that rich blacks have mostly escaped this punitive turn, have argued that the objects of social control are not African Americans, in general, but the poor, in particular.2

Whatever the differences between them, in these arguments the culprits behind the punitive turn are conservative elites. Two recent books by Naomi Murakawa and Elizabeth Hinton challenge that view. Both Murakawa and Hinton agree with much of the story told by Alexander and similar accounts, but they argue that existing research has minimized the culpability of the Democratic Party and its allies. In both Hinton’s and Murakawa’s view, the origins of mass incarceration are bipartisan.

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