Vested interests in mass incarceration


Michelle Alexander wrote in The New Jim Crow about how young black men are crushed by the war on drugs, both through discriminatory law enforcement and by loss of legal rights as ex-felons.  Unfortunately the federal government’s policies in the past 30 years have created a powerful vested interest in continuing the status quo.

alexander.m.newjimcrowAlexander said that if the United States were to return to the incarceration rates of the 1970s, a time when many liberals said rates of imprisonment were too high, it would mean the release of four out of five people currently behind bars today.  That would threaten the jobs of the more than 700,000 Americans employed as prison and jail guards, administrators, service workers and other prison personnel.   The criminal justice system employed almost 2.4 million people in 2006, she wrote; if four out of five people were released from prison, far more than a million people could lose their jobs.

Privatization of prisons means that there are wealthy individuals with a stake in continued mass incarceration.  This is politically important.  Prison guards unions in California campaigned against the referendum to legalize medical marijuana.  Private prison corporations lobbied in favor of the Arizona proof-of-citizenship law aimed at unauthorized immigrants.

Criminal justice jobs in California alone

Criminal justice jobs in California alone

The existence of a powerful Incarceration Lobby is the result of public policy going back to the Nixon administration and the 1970s drive to “de-fund the left.”   Conservatives in the Nixon administration thought that their opposition came not so much from poor people, who would not be poor if they were capable of organizing on their own behalf, as from social workers, public health nurses, guidance counselors and others in the helping professions who advocated for the poor.

The Nixon administration established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which provided federal aid for local police departments.  It also advocated, unsuccessfully, a guaranteed annual income, which was intended to help poor people while removing the welfare system’s disincentive to work.  This later became the Earned Income Tax Credit established under the Clinton administration.  I think both these ideas were good on their merits, but they were the beginning of a trend to diminish spending for the helping professions and to increase spending for law enforcement and incarceration.

Things were not always as they are now

Things were not always as they are now

Michelle Alexander picked up the story with the Reagan administration.   Ronald Reagan, like Goldwater, Wallace and Nixon, campaigned against two stereotypical figures—the filthy, drug-abusing, draft-dodging hippie, and the idle, drug-abusing, criminally-inclined young black man on the street corner.  Yet Reagan’s war on drugs did not go after dope-smoking college students.  It was aimed almost entirely at the black ghetto, based on the insight that most white people are skeptical of claims of anti-black discrimination.

At the time Reagan announced the war on drugs, many state and local police departments did not consider illegal drug use a top priority.  The Reagan administration changed this by means of huge cash grants to law enforcement agencies willing to make the war on drugs a top priority.  The size of disbursements was linked to the number of drug arrests.  The Pentagon offered military equipment, including grenade launchers and Blackhawk helicopters, to local police departments.   Funding for these programs increased under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.  As with other federal grant programs, this was too good an offer for most local governments to refuse.

Another financial incentive was established in 1984, when Congress allowed federal law enforcement agencies to retain the value of any assets seized in drug arrests—the drugs themselves, drug-making equipment and conveyances used to transport drugs—and state and local law enforcement to retain 80 percent of the assets’ value.  Property or cash could be seized on mere suspicion, and the seizure could occur without notice or hearing.  Nobody need be charged with a crime; indeed, the person could be found not guilty and the property still subject to forfeiture.   This proved highly lucrative, and was a major incentive to continue the war on drugs.

The Obama administration increased federal grants for drug law enforcement twelve-fold—not because there was any evidence of an increased need, but as part of the economic stimulus program.  The program enabled a certain number of police officers to keep their jobs in a period of economic austerity, as a cost of ruining the lives and futures of a certain number of poor young black men.

Alexander advocated a scaling down of the law enforcement aspect of the war on drugs, and its replacement by drug counseling, job placement and other programs to help young drug users.  I agree with her, but I think the prospects for any such program are poor in a situation of economic austerity.  If we had a high-wage, full-employment economic as in the 1950s and 1960s, few would object to allowing the rising tide to lift all the boats.  As it is, it is more of a lifeboat situation.  More jobs for ex-offenders will be perceived as fewer jobs for everyone else.

Click on The New Jim Crow for Michelle Alexander’s summary of her book in Mother Jones.

Click on What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Jobs for a report by Andy Kroll in Mother Jones.

Click on Stopped-and-Frisked For Being a F**king Mutt, for an an audio recording of a routine encounter by New York police and a young black man, along with commentary in The Nation.

Click on Drug, Alcohol, Tobacco Use Broken Down By Race, Ethnicity for statistics from the U.S. government’s National Study on Drug Use and Health.

Click on Race, Drugs and Law Enforcement for a report on U.S. drug enforcement by Human Rights Watch.

Click on Race and Drug Arrests and Plea Bargaining  for a two-part series in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on racial disparities in drug law enforcement.

Click on Drugs: crime, punishment and race, How race discrimination became legal again, The trouble with “colorblindness”, and Baltimore: casualty of a failed drug war   for earlier posts of mine on this subject.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: