Peter Temin in INET Economics:
Mass incarceration in the United States has mushroomed to the point where we look more like the authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe and the Middle East than the democracies of Western Europe. Yet it vanished from political discussions in campaigns in the 2016 election. In a new INET Working Paper, I describe in detail how the US arrived at this point. Drawing on a new model that synthesizes recent research, I demonstrate how the recent stability in the number of American prisoners indicates that we have settled into a new equilibrium of mass incarceration. I explain why it will hard to dislodge ourselves from this damaging and shameful status quo.
Mass incarceration started from Nixon’s War on Drugs, in a process described vividly by John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic-policy adviser, in 1994:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
This was the origin of mass incarceration in the United States, which has been directed at African Americans from Nixon’s time to today, when one third of black men go to prison (Bonczar, 2003; Baum, 2016; Alexander, 2010).
Federal laws were expanded in state laws that ranged from three-strike laws to harsh penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The laws also shifted the judicial process from judges to prosecutors, from the courtroom to offices where prosecutors pressure accused people to plea-bargain. The threat of harsh minimum sentences gives prosecutors the option of reducing the charge to a lesser one if the accused is reluctant to languish in jail awaiting trial—if he or she is unable to make bail—and then face the possibility of long years in prison. And the shift of power was eased by the pattern of financing. Prosecutors are paid by localities, while the costs of prisons are borne by states. The trip to the penitentiary does not cost prosecutor at all. “Instead of juries and trial judges deciding whether this or that defendant merits punishing, prosecutors decide who deserves a trip to the nearest penitentiary (Stuntz, 2011, 286; Pfaff, 2017, 127).”