In the not-too-distant past, the issue of mass incarceration provoked little popular concern in America and few calls for reform. But no longer. In recent years, a spate of books, articles, and documentary films have made a convincing case that we need to have a serious conversation about crime and punishment. Whether the concern is about creeping state power, the high cost of imprisonment as a remedy for social ills, or the role of discrimination in the criminal justice system, the assessment is the same: The American carceral state is in need of reform.
From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime provides a historical account of how we arrived at this consensus. Written by Harvard University historian Elizabeth Hinton, the book chronicles the disquieting period that followed the social reform and civil rights movements of the 1960s, when measures intended to be tough on crime gradually came to have stronger and stronger racial implications.
Hinton’s work follows in the footsteps of Michelle Alexander’s influential book The New Jim Crow (2012). Referring specifically to the targeting of black men during Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, Alexander argued that instead of ending racial caste in America “we have merely redesigned it.” In her view, communities of color were devastated by the loss of so many men who were punished with draconian and often strictly mandated sentences that relegated them, even after their release, to the status of second-class citizens with diminished rights and few prospects for employment.
Hinton agrees with Alexander in part, blaming Republican policymakers who, she writes, “employed the racially coded politics of crime control to appeal to disenchanted white voters.” But Hinton looks further into the past to trace the explosive growth of incarceration since the 1960s, blaming both conservatives and liberals for its rise. “The extraordinary expansion of the urban police forces, court cases, and prison populations during the War on Drugs should be understood,” she writes, “as the culmination of the domestic policies…that stemmed initially from one of the most idealistic enterprises in American history during the era of civil rights.” Focusing on the groundwork laid by Lyndon B. Johnson and his Great Society policies, Hinton identifies three factors that set the stage for soaring rates of incarceration during Reagan’s War on Drugs. The first was a marked increase in federal funding and involvement in crime and punishment, an area previously left largely to state and local governments. The Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, established in 1968, was the fastest-growing federal agency during the 1970s, and spent the equivalent of $15 billion in today’s dollars on supporting state police operations before it was abolished by the Reagan administration. The second factor was the government’s sloppy use of data, which fostered the perception that crime was on the rise and thus, in Hinton’s view, promoted “notions of black criminality [that] justified both structural and everyday racism.” And finally, funding for the extensive system of Great Society social services gradually morphed into support for more aggressive policing and crime-control policies.