How America’s mass incarceration disaster became a bipartisan rallying cry

An incarceration nation.
An incarceration nation.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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America’s mass incarceration disaster has been a bipartisan effort. In 1970, there were less than 200,000 people in American state and federal prison. In 2014, there were more than 1.5 million.

Republicans and Democrats collaborated to create this sevenfold increase. Former US presidents Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush, as well as both parties in Congress, passed draconian federal drug and sentencing laws while state governments and local prosecutors embarked on a 30-year incarceration binge. The result of this irresponsible, cross-party consensus is that the US now has by far the largest prison population in the world, both in terms of absolute numbers and rate of incarceration. The United States has 716 people incarcerated for every 100,000 people in the population. In comparison, China’s rate is about 121 for every 100,000 people.

In recent years, the bipartisan incarceration ideology has begun to crack. The left, including mainstream Democrats, have started to recognize mass incarceration as a human rights violation, tied closely to racism. This change was most recently highlighted by the Department of Justice’s surprise announcement on Aug. 18 that it would start phasing out private prisons for federal inmates. Somewhat surprisingly, the right has also begun to question the prison system, as David Dagan and Steven Teles report in their new book Prison Break: Why Conservatives Turned Against Mass Incarceration.

According to Dagan and Teles, the right’s move away from incarceration has been a long time coming. Conservative evangelical activists like Charles Colson—a Nixon aide who served time in prison—have been trying to highlight the plight of prisoners for decades. Over the decades, evangelicals managed to convince some conservative leaders of the moral wrongs of imprisonment and partner with centrist think tanks to create reform proposals. More recently, conservative activists and politicians have begun to highlight the cost of prison and to emphasize the ways in which a massive government gulag is at odds with the conservative vision of small government.

These arguments gained more salience as crime rates dropped nationwide, making tough-on-crime policies less powerful electorally. Eventually, even Newt Gingrich, formerly a rabid advocate for lock-em-up policies, changed his position. As Prison Break chronicles, the Republican House Speaker “who once called for a World War III like assault on the drug trade and championed prison construction in his [1994] Contract with America” actually said in 2013 “I think race has an enormous impact on decision after decision … And I think it would be very healthy for the country and for the Congress to re-evaluate … the whole way we’ve dealt with prison.” In the 1990s, the Clinton administration and Newt Gingrich were united in pushing for tougher sentencing. Now, Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich are united in condemning the racism of mass incarceration.

If Republicans and Democrats agree on ending mass incarceration, will prison populations start to fall as quickly as they rose? There are at least a few hopeful signs. The Justice Department decision is a good start, of course. Also of note is Texas, a conservative state with one of the largest prison populations in the country, which began in 2006 to shift away from building new prisons and towards drug and mental-health treatment. Incarceration rates in Texas fell by 10% between 2008 and 2013, and crime rates declined as well. Now other conservative states like Georgia are starting to follow Texas’ example, contributing to a nationwide drop in prison populations for the first time in decades.

Progress has been real—but it’s also been limited. “Reform has so far mostly been about flattening the growth curve, although some conservative states have made significant reductions in their prison population,” Prison Break author Teles told Quartz by email. He added that “hardly anyone is suggesting 1970 as a baseline [for prison populations]—our incarcerated population now is seven times what it was then, and even ambitious liberal groups are talking about a a 50% cut.”

Teles and Dagan point out in their book that reform has actually been easier in states where Republicans or Democrats completely dominate state government, because politicians feel safe from accusations that they’re soft on crime. “In states that are solidly red or blue, there is more room for politicians on either side to push prison reduction,” Teles told Quartz. In purple states like Virginia, bipartisan consensus is much harder to attain. Republicans vocally criticized Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe’s decision to restore voting rights to felons in the state who had served their time, notwithstanding the fact that conservative activist Colson, before his death, spoke out in favor of policies like McAuliffe’s.

Leftists also worry that prison reform efforts that focus on reducing incarceration as a cost-saving measure ignore the central moral issue. Our overcrowded prisons have been created by “the criminalization and punishment of poverty,” as James Kilgore, author of Understanding Mass Incarceration, told Quartz. “If the sole goal of ‘reform’ is to reduce prison numbers and slash corrections budgets, we will end up with Skid Rows akin to what we see in Los Angeles today in all our cities,” Kilgore said. “A program to let people out of prison without creating housing, job opportunities, universal health care, and systems of social support is simply a way of shifting the problem out of the hands of the state onto the sidewalks and backyards of already over-stressed, under-resourced communities which are disproportionately black and brown.”

In other words, prison has long been used as a way to warehouse and control groups of people who are seen as unnecessary, deviant, or disposable. If prisons are closed, but poor people and people of color are still policed and brutalized in other ways, is that really an improvement?

Still, even in terms of more far-reaching reforms, conservative movement on prison issues offers some signs of hope. “It does seem like, for a variety of reasons, that some basic level of humane concern for prisoners is becoming more politically viable,” Teles said. “We’ve seen many conservatives talking about drug users in a very different way, and it is not hard to see the mentally ill population as another area where compassion—and with it an exception to ‘lock ‘em up’ —is politically viable.”

If conservatives move towards seeing prisoners as fellow citizens worthy of humane treatment, that may create political ground for more sweeping solutions. But the process of decarceration is bound to be slow. It took the US 40 years to reach its current level of mass incarceration. It may take even longer to reverse it.