Hard Time: roots of the criminal-justice crisis

Chase Madar in Bookforum:

Cover00American punitiveness—in our policing, courts, prisons, and law—can’t be fully understood outside the context of white supremacy. Louisiana’s state penitentiary is on the site of a former plantation called Angola, so named because that was where its slaves came from; black men in bondage continue to farm the land. And the incarceration rate for black men in the USis an astronomical 2,207 per 100,000, nearly six times the rate for white men and higher than in South Africa under apartheid. In recent years, videos of lethal police violence against unarmed African Americans have become a constant on TV and online, making the problem virally visible. Two new books, part of an ongoing bumper crop of necessary writing on criminal justice in the US, explore the relationship between black America and our steroidal punishment system. James Forman Jr. and Paul Butler are both lawyers turned academics who regularly publish in legal journals and the mainstream press. They combine scholarly erudition with a practical knowledge of how the system works, writing with hard-won clarity about prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, witnesses, victims, and offenders. Approaching the same broad subject, both have produced immensely valuable books written from very different perspectives. One of Forman’s many talents is his ability to make radical, unsettling points in the calmest of voices. For example, his 2009 article “Exporting Harshness” makes a convincing case that the so-called excesses of the war on terror are not aberrations. They are, he argues, fairly consistent with the norms of the American penal system, and if they have been harder to ignore, that’s because they have occurred in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, where they have attracted press attention and international outrage. Although journalists have described domestic law-enforcement abuses as the war on terror “coming home” and adopted CIA terms like black site to describe police torture facilities in Chicago, Forman suggests it would make more sense to refer to Abu Ghraib as a Mesopotamian Rikers Island.

In his bracing (but always generous) 2012 critique of Michelle Alexander’s best seller The New Jim Crow (2010), Forman takes on an even more firmly established piece of conventional wisdom. Alexander’s thesis has become dogma among liberal criminal-justice reformers: Namely, mass incarceration is driven by a racist backlash against civil-rights advances, carried out under cover of the war on drugs. Her argument rests in part on the widely held belief that most inmates are nonviolent drug offenders, but Forman points out that only about 25 percent of our prison population fits this description. While it’s undeniable that racism is one of the most powerful engines of our punitive state, Forman asserts that the metaphor of mass incarceration as neo–Jim Crow is limited: “In emphasizing mass incarceration’s racial roots, the New Jim Crow writers overlook other critical factors,” such as the steady rise in violent crime rates from 1960 to the early ’90s and the broad support for disciplinary overkill in overwhelmingly white places like Idaho and Wyoming, which have also seen a steep climb in incarceration rates. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 35 percent of the nation’s prisoners were black in 2015. Though that’s an undeniable overrepresentation of black America’s 13 percent share of the overall population, it means the other 65 percent of US prisoners were nonblack. As Forman writes, “That’s a lot of ‘collateral damage.’”

More here.