Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Special Author Event: Mass Incarceration in America

Please join us tonight, Wednesday, at the Buena Vista Branch for a special presentation by author Elizabeth Hinton (review of her book below). Books are available at a special discount price for this event only, and the author will sign.

From the War on Poverty
to the War on Crime:
The Making of Mass Incarceration
in America,
by Elizabeth Hinton

In the United States today, one in every 31 adults is under some form of penal control, including one in 11 African American men. Elizabeth Hinton argues that “Since President Lyndon Johnson first called for a 'War on Crime' some 50 years ago, prisons, jails, and law enforcement institutions have functioned as a central engine of American inequality.” She has written a methodical and relentless analysis about the creation of mass incarceration in America, one that looks at its origins and foundational assumptions, and the policies, legislation, and institutions that have sustained it. Her research is formidable. Hinton focuses closely on the developments at the federal level in the “War on Crime” during the Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations. This book is destined to become an important reference in the growing discussion of the causes and political meanings of mass incarceration.

Helmeted policemen wield their clubs on an
African-American man lying on the sidewalk at
132nd St. and 7th Ave. in Harlem in July 1964.
Demonstrators were protesting the fatal shooting
of a 15-year-old African-American boy, James
Powell, by a white police officer.
Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” resulted in the social welfare programs that first established a federal presence in America’s impoverished urban centers, but the "War on Poverty," Hinton argues, was never willing to confront the inequality and racism that were the root causes of urban unemployment and poverty. The "War on Poverty" was based on certain racial assumptions of its own, the diagnosis of a pathology in the culture of marginalized African American communities that social welfare programs would seek to address.

When the urban riots in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Newark and other cities broke out, the emphasis of the "War on Poverty" shifted to keeping urban unrest in check. Hinton argues that federal policymakers “….decided to manage the criminal symptoms of poverty and inequality rather than disrupt the racial and economic status quo.” Primarily in urban areas, a law enforcement dimension migrated into existing social programs of the "War on Poverty," a policing presence that increased surveillance of minority populations and added a punitive dimension to the distribution of federal assistance. Hinton traces this change, analyzing the assumptions and objectives of the new federal anti-crime legislation of the period, tracing the bureaucratic realignments of the period in which many of the "War on Poverty" programs were either abandoned or moved under the aegis of federal law enforcement departments and out of the government social welfare departments, and most tellingly, she follows the dollars. The budgets of social welfare programs declined as funds for urban law enforcement grew rapidly, and she parses the expenditures, showing where most of the money went: towards greater police presence and improved law enforcement armament and technology. 

Frisking everyone during the Detroit riots.
 The most interesting chapters of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime are those that address the “War on Crime” policies of the Nixon administration. The Nixon administration abandoned the idea that social welfare programs would help reduce crime and took a frankly more punitive view of law enforcement and incarceration. Tougher and more targeted enforcement, coupled with the deterrent value of mandatory and longer sentences, became central to policy and federal grant support to urban police departments. Money was made available for a huge increase in prison building as policymakers projected large increases in incarceration. Hinton observes that “Although policymakers, law enforcement officials, and scholars justified the unyielding wave of prison construction by citing the high rates of reported crime during the 1970s, in reality, incarceration rates had little relationship to actual crime rates. Instead, incarceration rates correlated directly to the number of black residents and the extent of socioeconomic inequality within a given state.” Her examination of the inequalities of the juvenile justice system during this same period is the most poignant chapter in her book. It shows in stark relief, among the youngest people in the growing system of incarceration, the inequalities inherent in the institutions of mass incarceration. 

Jimmy Carter in 1977 amid the rubble and abandoned
buildings on Boston Road and Charlotte Avenue in
the South Bronx. The Carter administration expended
large amount of federal money trying to make crime
ridden housing projects"defensible fortresses."
Most of us who lived through the years when the system of mass incarceration in American was being established were oblivious. This was not our history. We might have been involved in other liberal and radical causes, but the growing incarceration of a significant portion of Black and Latino citizens was not something most of us thought about or worried about as long as we were safe. We might get alarmed over individual cases, maybe even sometimes take them as representative of a wider or systemic problem, but what was happening in the aggregate in that shadowed world seems to have eluded us--the social effects of laws, the nature of their enforcement, the character of the institutions and the assumptions upon which they were built, and the seemingly unassailable legitimacy they gained simply by the passage of time. The “War on Crime” has been self-perpetuating. It set up a feedback loop of self-fulfilling prophecies in urban neighborhoods, one that was in turn supported by the newly vested financial interests engaged in policing and imprisonment.

Our lack of attention may or may not be racism, but unarguably, it isn’t good citizenship. Citizenship demands that we should have paid more attention than we have to matters of race and equality in our criminal justice system and to the experience of our fellow citizens who had the most direct contact with that system, however marginalized or poor they were. From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime isn’t just about racism in the criminal justice system, however. It is larger than that. Mass incarceration is a reminder that we remain still unwilling to disrupt the racial and economic status quo, unwilling to address the causes, yet still willing to pay the huge financial and social costs of merely controlling the symptoms.  We seem still willing to do that, however much that strategy has failed in actually reducing crime. A reckoning may be upon us. This is a book that takes us back to the gate where we started, shows us how we took the wrong path, and tells us what we must do as we face the road ahead.

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