2012 may be remembered as the year that America’s massive reliance on incarceration broke into public and political consciousness in a way that signals the possibility of change. January saw the publication of a revised edition of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness that had become a surprise bestseller. Policy makers on both the left and the right began to raise fundamental questions about what had been accomplished by an over 500 percent increase in incarceration in the last thirty years. Politicians at the state and local level have realized that they simply can no longer afford to imprison so many in our new age of austerity.
In February, documentary film maker Matthew Pillischer released his film Broken on All Sides—a film that is a particularly powerful example of how the structural, systemic weaving together of race and class and criminal justice have been made newly visible. Pillischer began his project as an attempt to simply document the problems of overcrowding in the Philadelphia county jail system and the work morphed into a feature length film on America’s mass incarceration problem. Understanding a facet required looking at the whole:
So like pulling a single loose thread on a garment (drug arrests, sentencing rules, juvenile incarceration, problems of ex-offenders, etc.) we are more and more led to the proverbial bigger picture, the whole being more than the sum of its parts.
Earlier this month New York Times science writer John Tieney wrote a front-page feature pulling many threads at once and coming to the same place:
Three decades of stricter drug laws, reduced parole and rigid sentencing rules have lengthened prison terms and more than tripled the percentage of Americans behind bars. The United States has the highest reported rate of incarceration of any country: about one in 100 adults, a total of nearly 2.3 million people in prison or jail.
But today there is growing sentiment that these policies have gone too far, …
So what does this new visibility, this new awareness suggest for the future? We can hope that 2013 will be a year where a more sensible system of criminal justice can find cultural and policy purchase. We can lock up fewer people. We can change the rules of engagement in the war on drugs. We can build rehabilitation and redemption into our punitive institutions. We can address directly the deep racial prejudice that is intrinsic to every part of our criminal justice system and is the single greatest force maintaining our racially separate society.
Can we do this? Are things changing?
Jonathan Simon, professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and someone who has written extensively about American criminal justice, asks the same question and provides a caution in his blog, Governing Through Crime: “Are recent change in prison growth patterns, judicial decisions, and electoral results variation within the norm or evidence of a more profound change that could mark the end of our forty year experiment with mass incarceration?” He goes on:
As a student of punishment and society I’ve contributed to the view that California and the US generally has experienced a penal climate change beginning in the 1970s that have produced mass incarceration and the culture of fear that locks down others in gated communities and sterile office parks. Like others (Loic Wacquant, David Garland, Nicola Lacey, Bernard Harcourt), I have thought about this penal climate shift as broadly related to what may or may not be well labelled “neo-liberalism”, the very clear shift in political-economy from state centered and protectionist toward market-centered and unregulated (each account provides a very different analysis of how these political-economic changes mediate penal policies). Was the financial crisis of 2008 the beginning of the end of “neo-liberalism”? Is Obamacare really the beginning of a new phase of strong regulatory and welfare state development? I’d love to think so personally, but I’m skeptical.
Instead the relationship between “neo-liberalism” and the hot penal climate may be far looser than implied by some of the sociological accounts. Building “neo-liberalism” in the California and the US in the 1980s and 1990s may have gone facilitated and been facilitated by building and filling prisons but that does not mean the two must remain aligned. It is a sad fact of penal history … that penal practices fail regularly and at times spectacularly. Rising political alignments often find it extremely helpful to be able criticize the penal status quo, but after forty years the penal status quo is now associated with that alignment, in such instances, the alignment stays and penal policies change, sometimes in profound ways … Mass incarceration has failed, spectacularly in the form of overcrowding, humanitarian medical failure, and a mounting chronic illness crisis.
The failures are clear. We can see a criminal justice system “broken on all sides.” Some new “political alignments” are real. Skepticism is, no doubt, in order. But perhaps 2013 will be the year we will move beyond seeing the problem and really starting to change it—a new year’s resolution.