This week's Sunday Long Read is the indispensable Ta-Nehisi Coates on the black family and criminal justice in 2015.
The Gray Wastes—our carceral state, a sprawling netherworld of prisons and jails—are a relatively recent invention. Through the middle of the 20th century, America’s imprisonment rate hovered at about 110 people per 100,000. Presently, America’s incarceration rate (which accounts for people in prisons andjails) is roughly 12 times the rate in Sweden, eight times the rate in Italy, seven times the rate in Canada, five times the rate in Australia, and four times the rate in Poland. America’s closest to-scale competitor is Russia—and with an autocratic Vladimir Putin locking up about 450 people per 100,000, compared with our 700 or so, it isn’t much of a competition. China has about four times America’s population, but American jails and prisons hold half a million more people. “In short,” an authoritative report issued last year by the National Research Council concluded, “the current U.S. rate of incarceration is unprecedented by both historical and comparative standards.”
What caused this? Crime would seem the obvious culprit: Between 1963 and 1993, the murder rate doubled, the robbery rate quadrupled, and the aggravated-assault rate nearly quintupled. But the relationship between crime and incarceration is more discordant than it appears. Imprisonment rates actually fell from the 1960s through the early ’70s, even as violent crime increased. From the mid-’70s to the late ’80s, both imprisonment rates and violent-crime rates rose. Then, from the early ’90s to the present, violent-crime rates fell while imprisonment rates increased.(Robert Sampson. Data from: Bureau of Justice Statistics; Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics; Uniform Crime Reporting System.)
The incarceration rate rose independent of crime—but not of criminal-justice policy. Derek Neal, an economist at the University of Chicago, has found that by the early 2000s, a suite of tough-on-crime laws had made prison sentences much more likely than in the past. Examining a sample of states, Neal found that from 1985 to 2000, the likelihood of a long prison sentence nearly doubled for drug possession, tripled for drug trafficking, and quintupled for non aggravated assault.
That explosion in rates and duration of imprisonment might be justified on grounds of cold pragmatism if a policy of mass incarceration actually caused crime to decline. Which is precisely what some politicians and policy makers of the tough-on-crime ’90s were claiming. “Ask many politicians, newspaper editors, or criminal justice ‘experts’ about our prisons, and you will hear that our problem is that we put too many people in prison,” a 1992 Justice Department report read. “The truth, however, is to the contrary; we are incarcerating too few criminals, and the public is suffering as a result.”
History has not been kind to this conclusion. The rise and fall in crime in the late 20th century was an international phenomenon. Crime rates rose and fell in the United States and Canada at roughly the same clip—but in Canada, imprisonment rates held steady. “If greatly increased severity of punishment and higher imprisonment rates caused American crime rates to fall after 1990,” the researchers Michael Tonry and David P. Farrington have written, then “what caused the Canadian rates to fall?” The riddle is not particular to North America. In the latter half of the 20th century, crime rose and then fell in Nordic countries as well. During the period of rising crime, incarceration rates held steady in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—but declined in Finland. “If punishment affects crime, Finland’s crime rate should have shot up,” Tonry and Farrington write, but it did not. After studying California’s tough “Three Strikes and You’re Out” law—which mandated at least a 25-year sentence for a third “strikeable offense,” such as murder or robbery—researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Sydney, in Australia, determined in 2001 that the law had reduced the rate of felony crime by no more than 2 percent. Bruce Western, a sociologist at Harvard and one of the leading academic experts on American incarceration, looked at the growth in state prisons in recent years and concluded that a 66 percent increase in the state prison population between 1993 and 2001 had reduced the rate of serious crime by a modest 2 to 5 percent—at a cost to taxpayers of $53 billion.From the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, America’s incarceration rate doubled. From the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, it doubled again. Then it went still higher.
This bloating of the prison population may not have reduced crime much, but it increased misery among the group that so concerned Moynihan. Among all black males born since the late 1970s, one in four went to prison by their mid-‘30s; among those who dropped out of high school, seven in 10 did. “Prison is no longer a rare or extreme event among our nation’s most marginalized groups,” Devah Pager, a sociologist at Harvard, has written. “Rather it has now become a normal and anticipated marker in the transition to adulthood.”
The emergence of the carceral state has had far-reaching consequences for the economic viability of black families. Employment and poverty statistics traditionally omit the incarcerated from the official numbers. When Western recalculated the jobless rates for the year 2000 to include incarcerated young black men, he found that joblessness among all young black men went from 24 to 32 percent; among those who never went to college, it went from 30 to 42 percent. The upshot is stark. Even in the booming ’90s, when nearly every American demographic group improved its economic position, black men were left out. The illusion of wage and employment progress among African American males was made possible only through the erasure of the most vulnerable among them from the official statistics.
These consequences for black men have radiated out to their families. By 2000, more than 1 million black children had a father in jail or prison—and roughly half of those fathers were living in the same household as their kids when they were locked up. Paternal incarceration is associated with behavior problems and delinquency, especially among boys.
The entire piece is devastating in both its scope of history and the breadth of Coates's work. What he calls "the carceral state" has decimated the black community, and will continue to do so until it is dismantled.
That will take a miracle, sadly. We're fresh out of those.