Is mass incarceration history?

Neal Peirce

By Alan Bean

Over at, Neil Peirce has a balanced, informative and succinct report on the growing trend to re-think mass incarceration.  What’s driving this reappraisal of  lock-em-up policies?  Declining tax revenues. 

The states, which fund the bulk of our prisons, were hit by a breathtaking revenue decline of 30 percent in 2009 alone. It’s become ever-tougher for law-and-order politicos to justify ever-expanding prison rolls and costs.

What’s likely to frustrate a serious re-evaluation of prison policy?  Too many people are dependent on the prison boom and its poisonous fruit.

Rural legislators across the country have pressed for prisons as job opportunities for their residents. Will they agree to shutdowns, even in these toughest of economic times for state budgets ever?  It’s hard to believe.

Michelle Alexander doubts that tough times will make much of a dent in the drug war, and I fear she’s right.  We may see a year or two of minor decline in the prison population, but when happy days are here again politicians will start banging the “tough-on-crime” drum.

If the crime rate is low, they’ll credit mass incarceration.  If the crime rate is rising, they’ll say we closed too many prisons during the recession.

Here’s the big problem: mass incarceration was invented by small government zealots as an alternative to Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. The shrinking of one kind of government largesse created another kind of government. Instead of spending vast sums putting Americans to work (since the free market clearly wasn’t up to that task); we decided to spend vast sums on the drug war and mass incarceration.

We can’t back away from mass incarceration without giving vulnerable young men some basic economic justice.

One thought on “Is mass incarceration history?

  1. Michelle is proving to be right, in Texas at least. Facing budget cuts, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is opting to cut staff in prisons, cut treatment programs, cut support for parole officers. But by all means let’s not cut prison population. A recipe for increased criminal activity, for more incarceration and increased expenditures in the long run. Follow what TDCJ is doing on Grits for Breakfast.

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