Wednesday, December 28, 2016

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton

As the product of one of the most ambitious liberal welfare programs in American history, the rise of punitive federal policy over the last fifty years is a thoroughly bipartisan story. Built by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil rights movement, over time, the carceral state and the network of programs it encompassed came to dominate government responses to American inequality. Indeed, crime control may be the domestic policy issue in the late twentieth century where conservative and liberal interests most thoroughly intertwined.

From whence did mass incarceration originate? Dissatisfied with the prevalent law-and-order Republican narrative, Elizabeth Hinton attempts to answer this question while shedding light on how (bi)partisan politics led to our current levels of incarceration.

She starts with Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but before the Voting Rights Act, Johnson presented to Congress the Law Enforcement Assistance Act. This was part of a series of federal initiatives aimed at creating and subsisting a War on Poverty. Professor Hinton explains that the tough-on-crime legislation of the Johnson administration was part of a bigger project, collectively meant to alleviate poverty, particularly in urban areas.

Rhetorically, these programs were also supposed to empower local communities. Thus, the idea was that federal funds would go to local organizations who would use the funds to support various social welfare goals. However, when it came time to actually commit to local empowerment, Congress got cold feet; instead of local control, control would come through various arms of federal agencies.

These social welfare programs had varying levels of success. Professor Hinton shows a correlation between local control and success; however, local control was rare. And the message Congress received was not that local control was necessary, but that social welfare programs were doomed to fail. This belief, in part fueled by racism, led to a belief that the federal government should not be spending its funds on social welfare. So, as we moved farther and farther from the Johnson administration, we see these social welfare programs being cut more and more.

This was not the case, however, when it came to tough on crime measures. Refusing to see crime as a consequence of socioeconomic conditions, federal policy-makers viewed crime as the cause of bad socioeconomic conditions. Viewing crime this way freed Congress to pass gradually tougher and tougher crime laws. This was not only in the form of more stringent federal criminal laws, but also in the form of funds being made available to state and municipal law enforcement to enact federal prerogatives.

Professor Hinton tracks these two trends (de-funding and dismantling social welfare programs on the one hand and bolstering tough-on-crime measures on the other hand) from the Johnson administration through the first Bush administration. Her read of the relevant federal crime debates is compelling, supported by detailed research, and is the most persuasive explanation of mass incarceration I've read so far. Unlike the other books explaining mass incarceration, Professor Hinton does a good job of placing debates about crime within the broader context of other anti-poverty measures. She convincingly explains how the social welfare aspects of Johnson's War on Poverty were never given a proper chance to succeed, while the War on Crime garnered resources without regard to its success (or lack thereof).

This was the most comprehensive book on federal criminal justice policy I've read. It was similar in scope to The First Civil Right, but this book is broader in the sense that it is not interested in crime as a stand-alone policy, but as part of broader federal initiatives. Which is not to say that the two books are that different. They both attribute latent racism to our current state of mass incarceration; they both believe that Democrats are at least as responsible for mass incarceration as Republicans. The main difference is that Professor Hinton presents a narrative that shows the transformation from the War on Poverty to the War on Crime. Professor Murakawa, in contrast, presents a narrative focused on how the debates about federal criminal justice, in a fundamental way, conceded the premise of black criminality.

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