DRCNet Book Review: Race to Incarcerate, Revised Edition," by Marc Mauer (2006, The New Press, $15.95 PB) 6/30/06

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Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor, [email protected], 6/30/06

In 1973, I was 18 years old. Flower Power had faded, but the scent of marijuana lingered in the air. The revolutionary upsurge and rising counterculture of the late 1960s had peaked, but the country remained deeply divided. President Richard Nixon was fresh from reelection in a bitterly fought battle against Democrat George McGovern, having made political hay with a "Southern Strategy" whose angry rhetoric about being "tough on crime" was thin cover for a racial appeal to worried Southern whites and Northern ethnics.

After staying remarkably steady for decades, the US prison population was beginning to climb upwards as Nixon unleashed his politically popular "war on crime." The year I attained my adulthood, some 200,000 people were in state or federal prison in America. I am now well into middle age, and every year of my adult life, the number of people we imprison has gone up. According to the most recent figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 1.4 million men and women were in prison in America last year.

Adding more than 700,000 people sitting in jails on any given day last year, the US -- the land of the free -- currently has a world record 2.2 million people behind bars. Through more than three decades of war and peace, economic good times and bad times, rising crime rates and falling crime rates, Republican presidents and Democratic presidents, domestic strife and domestic numbness, if not bliss, our prison population continues its seemingly inexorable growth. Not only do we imprison more people, we also lead the world in incarceration per capita. And we imprison our black citizens at a rate that would make the apartheid Afrikaners blush with shame.

In "Race to Incarcerate," veteran criminal justice analyst and reformer Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, explains what happened and why. He also makes a compelling argument as to why our embrace of mass incarceration as a response to social problems is not only cruel and inhumane but wasteful and counterproductive and very sensible suggestions about what we should be doing instead.

After demonstrating through comparative analysis that the US and other industrialized nations have relatively similar crime rates -- except for murder -- and thus our imprisonment boom is not explained by higher crime rates here nor by rises and falls in the crime rate in the US, Mauer begins by noting simply, but logically, that a nation's prison population is a function of two variables: the number of people entering prison and the amount of time to which they are sentenced.

Those variables are social and political choices -- a crucial point for Americans for whom it is to easy to think this is the only possible world and that mass imprisonment is the only possible way of dealing with social problems and even criminality. We choose to be the world's leading jailer. As Mauer puts it, "The degree to which a society engages in prison building, far from illustrating a direct correlation between crime and incarceration, is subject to a host of decisions made within and without the criminal justice system."

With the acquiescence, if not outright one-upmanship of Democratic politicians, Republican presidents from Nixon through Reagan and the Bushes played the "tough on crime" card (the Democrat Clinton was no different), and an increasingly important aspect of "tough on crime" was the war on drugs, begun under Nixon and sent into overdrive in the "Just Say No" Reagan 1980s. Hapless drug users and poor, inner city street-corner drug sellers, Mauer notes, began filling the prisons. In state prisons, the number of drug war prisoners jumped a whopping 546% between 1985 and 2000, and drug offenders were responsible for one-quarter of the overall increase in prison numbers. In the federal prisons, the numbers are even more dramatic, with a 643% increase in federal drug prisoners during that period. The federal drug war was responsible for almost two-thirds of the growth in the federal prison population.

As Mauer hammers home, both the tough approach to crime overall and the war in drugs in particular have had a devastating impact on the nation's black community. For example, he notes that 13% of black men are ineligible to vote because of felony records. "In those states that impose disenfranchisement on ex-felons, the figures are truly enormous," he writes. "One in four black men are permanently disenfranchised in Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, Virginia, and Wyoming. Given current trends, as many as 30% to 40% of African-American males will lose the right to vote for some or all of their adult lives."

The rest of his figures on disproportionate imprisonment of blacks are depressingly familiar, and Mauer is perhaps too generous in not calling "racism" on the criminal justice establishment -- after three decades of "race neutral" crime polices that consistently generate racially biased results, who but a racist deliberately continues such policies? Mauer is perhaps more willing to believe in the good faith of the police, prosecutors, and politicians who wage this war than is this reviewer.

It is time for "a new direction" in criminal justice policy, Mauer concludes. To begin, we need to acknowledge that the criminal justice system plays a limited role in crime control. In fact, it would be more accurate to think of the level of imprisonment as a gauge of a society's punitiveness, not its crime rate. There are other ways, he suggests. "Problem-solving policing," where police acknowledge they can't arrest their way out of the problem and seek to build relations with their communities, is one way. Ending the drug war as we currently know it is another. The need for sentencing reform screams out as well. Prisoner reentry programs -- 600,000 men and women walk out of prison each year these days -- are also critical, and the embrace of "restorative justice" as a criminal justice model would be an improvement, too.

America's prison population is a national disgrace, and Mauer has done an excellent job of not only explaining why it got that way, but also where we can go instead. This book should be required reading for college criminal justice classes and lawmakers. Mauer was first moved to publish "Race to Incarcerate" in 1999, and while this new edition has updated information, its essential analysis remains as grimly cogent and incisive as when it first appeared. While some reforms, such as the limited Rockefeller law reforms in New York and California's Proposition 36, as well as sentencing reforms in other states, have begun to bite into the prison-industrial complex, our prison population continues to grow.

-- END --
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Issue #442 -- 6/30/06

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


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Feature: Reefer Madness from the United Nations on International Anti-Drug Day | Feature: Summer Music Festival Season is Here, and So Are Police Checkpoints -- Know Your Rights! | Follow-Up: Medical Marijuana Gains Support in Congress -- Slightly -- Some Surprises | DRCNet Book Review: Race to Incarcerate, Revised Edition," by Marc Mauer (2006, The New Press, $15.95 PB) | "Scoops" in Drug War Chronicle Last Week | Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Law Enforcement: Revelation of Major Sleaze Among "Operation Lively Green" Informants, Cover-Up by FBI Agent | Newsbrief: California Legislature Votes to Gut Prop. 36 -- Court Challenge Imminent | Harm Reduction: Responding to Wave of Fentanyl Overdose Deaths, Senator Durbin Proposes OD Prevention Bill | Hemp: California Industrial Hemp Bill Wins Another Committee Vote | Europe: Italian Ministers Announce Drug Law Revisions | Southwest Asia: Iranian Official Says Country Could Ignore Drug Traffickers if UN Doesn't Up Anti-Drug Aid | Web Scan: Government Waste, Len Bias Legacy, World Drug Report, Zogby Poll, John Stossel, Steph Sherer, Nathan Riley | Weekly: This Week in History | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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