The World’s Warden: Crime, Punishment, and Politics in the United States

The World’s Warden: Crime, Punishment, and Politics in the United States

Throughout American history, politicians and public officials have exploited public anxieties about crime and disorder for political gain. The difference today is that these political strategies and public anxieties have come together in the perfect storm. They have radically transformed U.S. penal policies, spurring an unprecedented prison boom. Since the 1970s, the U.S. prisoner population has increased by more than fivefold. Today, the United States is the world’s warden, incarcerating a higher proportion of its people than any other country—or about one out of every hundred adults. A staggering seven million people—or one in every thirty-two adults—are either incarcerated, on parole or probation, or under some other form of state supervision.

These figures understate the enormous and disproportionate impact that this unprecedented social experiment has had on certain groups in U.S. society. If current trends continue, one in three black men and one in six Hispanic men will spend some time in jail or prison during their lives.

Public dismay over the crushing economic burden of incarcerating and monitoring so many people is growing. But does this dismay herald the beginning of the end of the prison boom? The answer is not simple.

Severe budget deficits in the wake of the 2001 recession forced some states to close prisons and lay off guards. Since then, dozens of states have experimented with new sentencing formulas, mostly directed at nonviolent offenders. Fiscally conservative Republicans previously known for being penal hard-liners have championed some of these recent relaxations in penal policy. This has fueled speculation that law-and-order Republicans, troubled by mounting costs, could reverse the country’s prison boom, much as red-baiter Richard Nixon was ideally situated to breach the great political wall with China.

We cannot assume that mounting fiscal pressures will spur communities, states, and the federal government to empty jails and prisons. A little more than three decades ago, reformers hoped that shared disillusionment on the right and the left with indeterminate sentences and prison rehabilitation programs would lead to shrinking the inmate population. Instead, although crime rates have even declined in the last ten years, the prison population has exploded.

Economic Pressures and the Prison Boom

The race to incarcerate began in the 1970s at a time when states and the federal government faced dire financial straits. It persisted despite wide fluctuations in the crime rate, public opinion, and the economy over the next thirty years. As criminologist Norval Morris warned in the early 1980s, fiscal concerns are “an extraordinarily weak reed to rely on” because “states and the federal government are capable of the most extraordinary absorption of increased numbers.”

Recent developments in California and Arizona are sober reminders of that. Several years ...

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