Conservatives have usually been somewhat knowledgeable about criminal justice issues, particularly that the drop in crime over the past few decades was a result of broken windows policing and three strikes sentencing; but lately some of them seem to be buying into the Marxist-inspired analysis called “mass incarceration”, as this story in the Washington Post indicates.
“At a time of earnest debate on the size and role of government, relatively little attention has been paid to the Hoover Dam of American social engineering: mass incarceration.
“As crime rates increased in the 1960s and ’70s, the prototypical liberal response — the amelioration of the social conditions thought to generate crime — seemed ineffective and woolly headed. “Law and order” campaigns became the norm in both parties, accompanied by policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, aimed at incapacitating the criminal class. The number of people behind bars in America rose from 314,000 in 1979 to about 2 million in mid-2013.
“Few objected because this approach was accompanied by a dramatic decline in crime rates, which fell by half in some categories. Not all this was because of increased incarceration — better policing techniques played a significant role — but public safety was clearly improved by separating convicted criminals from prospective victims for longer periods. As the crime problem became less urgent, the issue largely faded. In polls, few Americans rank crime as a top concern.
“But the social side effects of get-tough policies are coming under increasing scrutiny. On the left, Ohio State law professor Michelle Alexander presses the case against a criminal justice system that sweeps up large numbers of young African Americans, sometimes for relatively minor drug offenses, places them in dangerous and dysfunctional institutions and then, upon release, denies them basic democratic rights. “Today,” she points out, “there are more African Americans under correctional control — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850.”
“But serious criticisms of mass incarceration have emerged on the right as well, summarized in a recent essay by Eli Lehrer in National Affairs. Lehrer critiques a system that removes 2 million people from the workforce, produces high levels of recidivism and (relatedly) subjects prisoners to inhumane conditions. Prison order is often maintained by gangs, with the tacit approval of prison authorities. By one estimate, 20 percent of inmates are subjected to coerced sexual contact.”