But while prisons boomed, something else was happening — a trade-off. As sociologist Loic Wacquant says, the government was simultaneously slashing funds for public housing. In the 1990s, as federal corrections budgets increased by $19 billion, money for housing was cut by $17 billion, "effectively making the construction of prisons the nation’s main housing program for the poor." State budgets took their cues from Washington in a new but unspoken national consensus: poverty itself was criminalized. Although “law and order’’ was taken to be a Republican mantra, this phenomenon was fully bipartisan, as Wacquant shows, with the most ferocious growth in the incarceration of poor people occurring in the Clinton years. "Welfare as we know it" was replaced by punishment. States went prison-crazy.
But the current fiscal crisis has blown a hole through all that razor-wire. State budgets suddenly cannot afford prison systems, which universally choke off funds for education, transportation, and infrastructure. ... [T]he whole system has become morally dubious as well. While a famously over-exuberant economy was built on the lies of bankers tied to an artificially inflated housing sector, the prison boom depended on racist and class-biased "criminology" that was, in fact, steadily debunked by penal experts. Just as irrational assumptions of "risk assessment" prompted mortgage brokers to understate the risks of home ownership, they led prosecutors, in a parallel noted by Berkeley law professor Jonathan Simon, to grossly overstate the risks to society of huge numbers of defendants. The housing bubble, Simon shows, devastated neighborhoods by littering them with abandoned properties. The prison bubble devastated neighborhoods by depriving them of fathers and husbands.We've been watching the prison housing bubble burst all over the country in the last few years. Those popping noises you've been hearing are the result of too much prison time, too many harsh sentences, and too little sentencing discretion in the hands of judges. The real question: Will state legislatures and Congress step up and do something about it by changing our sentencing policies?