Glenn C. Loury has published an important essay American incarceration, including especially the issue of race and prisons, in Boston Review, “Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?”
The following three paragraphs are from Loury’s essay:
“Never before has a supposedly free country denied basic liberty to so many of its citizens. In December 2006, some 2.25 million persons were being held in the nearly 5,000 prisons and jails that are scattered across America’s urban and rural landscapes. One third of inmates in state prisons are violent criminals, convicted of homicide, rape, or robbery. But the other two thirds consist mainly of property and drug offenders. Inmates are disproportionately drawn from the most disadvantaged parts of society. On average, state inmates have fewer than 11 years of schooling. They are also vastly disproportionately black and brown.
“How did it come to this? One argument is that the massive increase in incarceration reflects the success of a rational public policy: faced with a compelling social problem, we responded by imprisoning people and succeeded in lowering crime rates. This argument is not entirely misguided. Increased incarceration does appear to have reduced crime somewhat. But by how much? Estimates of the share of the 1990s reduction in violent crime that can be attributed to the prison boom range from five percent to 25 percent. Whatever the number, analysts of all political stripes now agree that we have long ago entered the zone of diminishing returns. The conservative scholar John DiIulio, who coined the term “super-predator” in the early 1990s, was by the end of that decade declaring in The Wall Street Journal that “Two Million Prisoners Are Enough.” But there was no political movement for getting America out of the mass-incarceration business. The throttle was stuck.
“A more convincing argument is that imprisonment rates have continued to rise while crime rates have fallen because we have become progressively more punitive: not because crime has continued to explode (it hasn’t), not because we made a smart policy choice, but because we have made a collective decision to increase the rate of punishment.”
Loury further makes an argument regarding potential motivations for the shift to more punitive measures. I don’t feel that the essay provides a complete explanation (I think that a clear part of the rise in incarceration rates alongside falling crime rates is the rise of private enterprise and profit as a component of prison systems), but it’s an interesting argument worth taking a look at nonetheless. In the following paragraph, Loury, drawing on the work of Vesla Mae Weaver, writes:
"The political scientist Vesla Mae Weaver, in a recently completed dissertation, examines policy history, public opinion, and media processes in an attempt to understand the role of race in this historic transformation of criminal justice. She argues—persuasively, I think—that the punitive turn represented a political response to the success of the civil-rights movement. Weaver describes a process of “frontlash” in which opponents of the civil-rights revolution sought to regain the upper hand by shifting to a new issue. Rather than reacting directly to civil-rights developments, and thus continuing to fight a battle they had lost, those opponents—consider George Wallace’s campaigns for the presidency, which drew so much support in states like Michigan and Wisconsin—shifted attention to a seemingly race-neutral concern over crime."