Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A New Epidemic: Mass Incarceration

Michelle Alexander provides thoughtful review and analysis of two new books on mass incarceration in this article in the Washington Post today.

The books are:

Here's the gist of A Plague of Prisons:
Ernest Drucker, an internationally recognized public health scholar, professor and physician, contends that mass incarceration ought to be understood as a contagious disease, an epidemic of gargantuan proportions. With voluminous data and meticulous analysis, he persuasively demonstrates in his provocative new book, “A Plague of Prisons,” that the unprecedented surge in incarceration in recent decades is a social catastrophe on the scale of the worst global epidemics, and that modes of analysis employed by epidemiologists to combat plagues and similar public health crises are remarkably useful when assessing the origins, harm and potential cures for what he calls our “plague of imprisonment.” ...
Drucker traces the moment of outbreak to the war on drugs. Beginning with the Rockefeller drug laws adopted in New York state in the 1970s, followed by President Ronald Reagan’s declaration of war in 1982, our nation set out to incarcerate millions of Americans for relatively minor crimes and drug offenses. Such arrests go a long way toward explaining how the “infection” has spread. Arrests and convictions for drug offenses, Drucker writes, “are the most important agent of transmission that creates new cases of incarceration.”
Whether the metaphor holds up or not, comparing mass incarceration to an outbreak of infectious disease is a new and interesting way to look at the problem.
Drucker’s argument leaves a nagging question unanswered, however: Why is this happening? ... William J. Stuntz thinks he has an answer. A Harvard Law professor who died earlier this year, Stuntz argues in “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice” that the stunning surge in imprisonment of poor people of color can be explained by two factors: a dramatic spike in crime in the 1950s and ’60s, coupled with profound changes in how our democracy is structured. Urban residents, he observes, once had far more control over police and prosecutors and could exert more influence in the jury box. When those who bear the costs of both crime and punishment exercise significant power over those who enforce the law, a more balanced and empathetic approach to crime is the predictable result.
An interesting theory -- in essence, the reason this sickness has spread is because we -- voters -- have let it.  We have stopped holding prosecutors, police, and legislators accountable in the courthouse and at the ballot box.  Legislators who pass tough sentencing laws stay in office partly because we let them.

Sounds like two interesting books to add to the reading list.

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