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The History of Mass Incarceration

From Alexis de Tocqueville to Ronald Reagan, the forces that have shaped the current state of our prison system.

  • James Cullen
July 20, 2018

You’ve heard the phrase “mass incar­cer­a­tion.” But what, really, does it mean? 

Simply put, it is short­hand for the fact that the U.S. incar­cer­ates more people than any nation in the world, includ­ing China. And the U.S. is also the leader in the prison popu­la­tion rate. Amer­ica’s approach to punish­ment often lacks a public safety rationale, dispro­por­tion­ately affects minor­it­ies, and inflicts overly harsh sentences. 

We can build a better and fairer system. But before explor­ing how to fix the prob­lem, it is worth­while to conduct a brief review of the history of incar­cer­a­tion.  

From Noble Inten­tions to Knee-jerk Result

The Founders, rebelling against a Brit­ish legal system that vested all power in the Crown, wanted a justice system that guarded against govern­ment abuse. Four of the first 10 amend­ments to the Consti­tu­tion protect the rights of the accused or convicted. This was a state­ment of prior­it­ies — and the world noticed. 

Alexis de Tocqueville, the renowned 19th century French soci­olo­gist, came to the U.S. in 1831 to study the young nation’s pris­ons and penit­en­tiar­ies. He found that certain states were attempt­ing to admin­is­ter humane and propor­tional punish­ment in a way France, and the rest of Europe, were not. His obser­va­tions appeared in his clas­sic work, Demo­cracy in Amer­ica.

Of course, de Tocqueville also saw much to criti­cize in the young United States, includ­ing its commit­ment to slavery. That legacy contin­ues to haunt the coun­try today, even as most of the world has adop­ted punish­ment systems more in line with what de Tocqueville hoped to find. Today, the U.S. incar­cer­a­tion rate is nine times higher than Germany, eight times higher than Italy, five times higher than the U.K., and 15 times higher than Japan. 

Why? Simply put, other coun­tries do not use prison as a one-size-fits-all solu­tion to crime. In 2016, the Bren­nan Center examined convic­tions and sentences for the 1.46 million people behind bars nation­ally and found that fully 39 percent, or 576,000, were in prison without any public safety reason and could have been punished in a less costly and damaging way (such as community service).

But even if they were all released, the U.S. would still incar­cer­ate at a far higher rate than compar­able coun­tries.  

Mass Incar­cer­a­tion Takes Hold

It wasn’t always this way. The prison popu­la­tion began to grow in the 1970s, when politi­cians from both parties used fear and thinly veiled racial rhet­oric to push increas­ingly punit­ive policies. Nixon star­ted this trend, declar­ing a “war on drugs” and justi­fy­ing it with speeches about being “tough on crime.” But the prison popu­la­tion truly exploded during Pres­id­ent Ronald Reagan’s admin­is­tra­tion. When Reagan took office in 1980, the total prison popu­la­tion was 329,000, and when he left office eight years later, the prison popu­la­tion had essen­tially doubled, to 627,000. This stag­ger­ing rise in incar­cer­a­tion hit communit­ies of color hard­est: They were dispro­por­tion­ately incar­cer­ated then and remain so today.

Incar­cer­a­tion grew both at the federal and state level, but most of the growth was in the states, which house the vast major­ity of the nation’s pris­on­ers. The number of pris­on­ers grew in every state — blue, red, urban, and rural. In Texas, for example, the state incar­cer­a­tion rate quad­rupled: In 1978, the state incar­cer­ated 182 people for every 100,000 resid­ents. By 2003, that figure was 710. 

These changes were spurred in part by laws like the 1994 Crime Bill, which gave states money to perpetu­ate policies that bred bloated pris­ons. In fact, while it received little atten­tion, the rise of mass incar­cer­a­tion was a phenomenon that has affected the entire coun­try for four decades.  

Mass Incar­cer­a­tion’s Slow Decline

Recently however, there has been some incre­mental progress in redu­cing mass incar­cer­a­tion. In the last decade, prison popu­la­tions have declined by about 10 percent. Racial dispar­it­ies in the prison popu­la­tion have also fallen. This is the product of a bipar­tisan consensus that mass incar­cer­a­tion is a mistake. Lawmakers from both parties have come to real­ize that lock­ing people up is an expens­ive, inef­fect­ive means to fight crime. Some conser­vat­ive states like Texas have led the way, undo­ing many of the harsh policies passed in the 1980s and 1990s. States have seen their prison popu­la­tions and crime rates decline simul­tan­eously. Unfor­tu­nately, however, both Pres­id­ent Trump and Attor­ney General Jeff Sessions are stout reform oppon­ents, threat­en­ing the small progress that’s been made.  

Yet, it’s import­ant to remem­ber that even at the current rate of decline, it will take decades to achieve incar­cer­a­tion rates appro­pri­ate to the current viol­ent crime rate, which is roughly where it was in 1971. And while racial dispar­it­ies are decreas­ing, the rate of incar­cer­a­tion for African Amer­ic­ans would only match whites after 100 years at the current pace.  

The good news is that at last crim­inal justice policy has finally begun to change course. But without a sustained effort, this burst of reform will fall short. Mass incar­cer­a­tion was created through decades-long policy shifts at the national, state, and local level. Ending it will require policies just as far-reach­ing.  

(Photo: Think­stock)