The Roots of Mass Incarceration

by | Dec 27, 2019

The Roots of Mass Incarceration

by | Dec 27, 2019

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America by Elizabeth Hinton (Harvard University Press, 2016), 449 pages.

Before the war on the drugs there was the war on crime. In 1975 the police department of Washington, D.C., launched “Operation Sting” in partnership with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to purchase $2.4 million worth of stolen property with $67,000 in government money. Under the program, undercover police officers posed as Mafia dons operating out of a warehouse under the name PFF INC, which the authorities jokingly called Police-FBI Fencing Incognito. Hundreds of petty thieves delivered typewriters, adding machines, radios, and television sets to the authorities.

The police wrapped up the operation by throwing a party to give the goons a chance to meet the Big Boss. When they arrived, they were arrested. Having one big arrest event saved the police a lot of time. The operation was touted in the news as a huge success in the war on crime, but it also in fact created a demand for crime by creating a market for stolen goods. Most of the people who became thieves for the operation were people unemployed. Would those who were victims of the thieves have been victims if not for the operation?

This is one story told in the book From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, by Elizabeth Hinton. Today people think about the war on drugs as being responsible for the growing police militarization and the rise of the prison industry in the United States, but both trends started before Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs that Richard Nixon had begun.

Today the United States holds 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, while it represents only 5 percent of the world’s population. Elizabeth Hinton traces the start of the prison boom to the spring of 1970 when, under the administration of Richard Nixon, the Bureau of Prisons launched a ten-year “Long-Range Master Plan” to expand the prison system based not on rising crime statistics but instead on population-growth estimates based on the census. The population didn’t grow as expected in the following decade, but by its end the penal population had grown by 25 percent as a record half-million Americans were incarcerated in such institutions. It’s easy to see this as a self-fulfilling prophecy and to see programs such as Operation Sting as a way to feed this machine, much as it’s easy to see how sheriffs’ departments around the United States have an incentive to support the war on drugs to help fund their budgets by seizing money and property from drug dealers, a power given to them by the landmark Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. But this book shows that there is more going on than simple bureaucratic interests.

Of course it has been minority groups and the black population in general that have been caught up the most in the prison system. In cities such as Philadelphia, the percentage of black prisoners in the county jail rose from 50 percent to 95 percent from 1970 to 1974. Until the 1970s they made up only one-third of the nation’s prison population. Today they compose more than 37 percent of it.

It’s easy to think that this is all just simply about politicians’ playing on people’s fears for votes. As a U.S. Senator, Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said in 1982 that “crime is a national-defense problem. You’re in as much jeopardy in the street as you are from a Soviet missile.” As he ran for president in 1968, Richard Nixon told people they needed to vote for him “like your whole world depended on it” so that he could restore law and order. “I was cranking out that b——t on Nixon’s crime policy before he was elected. And it was b——t, too,” said White House counsel John Dean. “We knew it. The Nixon campaign didn’t call for anything about crime problems that Ramsey Clark wasn’t already doing under LBJ. We just made more noise.”

Welfare and crime

Whether it is the “war on crime,” the “war on drugs,” or the “war on terror” in the twenty-first century, the criminal justice system is the nation’s most important domestic program. Elizabeth Hinton has written a book that should be read by every American because it explains how it really began. It first grew out of and was linked to Lyndon Johnsons’ “war on poverty,” which was intended to solve problems of financial need, joblessness, and urban decay. At the same time that its programs peaked in importance, Johnson created the programs that would become “the war on crime,” as it became evident that the social programs were not succeeding.

Through the 1920s to the 1960s, there were waves of black migrants moving out of the segregated southern states and into northern urban areas and into California. World War II brought an industrial boom tied to the defense industry and auto manufacturing that attracted migrants to places such as Detroit and Los Angeles. But during the next twenty years, many of those manufacturing jobs vanished because of automation. Thirty-one percent of black Americans lived in one of twelve urban northern cities in living conditions of unemployment and marginalization that also generated crime. In 1961 the president of Harvard compared “the building up of a mass of unemployed and frustrated Negro youth in congested areas of a city” to “social dynamite.”

Lyndon Johnson’s key “war on poverty” program was the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. It budgeted $1 billion to fight poverty with community-action programs consisting of training for low-income youth for two-year terms at $150 a month, work-study and adult-literacy classes for adults, and “head start” programs for children. The programs were said to fight effects of inequality and problems in the economy, but they did not fix their causes. “These are not programs to bring about major structural change in the economy, or to generate large numbers of additional jobs,” read the 1964 bill.

The social programs failed to change the living conditions in the urban slums and so things began to erupt. In July 1964, six nights of riots took place in Harlem after a police officer shot a black youth. One person died, and similar but smaller events took place in Chicago and Philadelphia. In Rochester, N.Y., though, a riot took place in which four people died and 1,000 were arrested. Bigger and now better-
remembered events would take place in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Detroit over the next few years.

But the summer riots of 1964 caused the Johnson administration to take a turn in its social programs and link the “war on poverty” to what would become a “war on crime.” The president declared to a meeting of the American Bar Association that “fulfillment of rights and prevention of disorder [go] hand in hand.” He said that he “will not permit any part of America to become a jungle, where the weak are the prey of the strong and the many.”

In March 1965, Johnson formally declared a “war on crime” and passed the Law Enforcement Act of 1965. That act created a new federal crime-control agency, the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance, to create training programs and surveillance techniques for police serving low-income urban areas. Block grants from the federal government fueled the programs while creating new relationships of centralized control. The bill helped Johnson take the issue out of the hands of conservatives, but it also served as a way to control the problems of the urban slums and ghettos.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Johnson’s attorney general explaining that he supported the bill because “for some time, it has been my feeling that the task of law enforcement agencies is really not much different from military forces; namely to deter crime before it occurs, just as our military objective is to deter aggression.”

Such metaphors seemed to make sense as South Central Los Angeles erupted in the Watts Riot of 1965, in which 35,000 people rioted, destroying entire city blocks. In South Central L.A., General Motors, Chrysler, and Firestone closed factories that they had built in the 1930s. Only a single plant was left. One in three people was unemployed in the area. On the second day of rioting, Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker said he did not know when he would be able to get the area back under control. It is “very much like fighting the Viet Cong,” he said.

“This was not a riot. It was an insurrection against all authority. If it had gone much further, it would have become civil war,” declared CBS Radio. Lyndon Johnson agreed. “We are today fighting a war within our own boundaries,” he said by the end of the year. Soon authorities would focus on young black men in urban areas not simply as criminals, but as potential instigators of revolution. Putting as many of them in jail as possible with tougher sentencing guidelines to prevent crime became the solution.

After Detroit erupted in 1967, Johnson held a cabinet meeting and said that he suspected that communists or black militants were behind the violence, even though he was given no evidence for that proposition. A month later, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted “Black Nationalist Hate Groups” for monitoring and disruption under his COINTELPRO program.

Perhaps the spirit and fears of the time were summed up best by James C. Davis, the president of the American Bar Association’s Cleveland chapter, when he said,

Today there are close to 30 million Negroes in the United States. The total population of North Viet Nam is about 19 million or a little over 60 percent of the American Negro population. Yet the relatively small North Vietnamese population has tied down more than one million allied troops, troops that were unable to maintain security in the face of simultaneous disorders in the cities of South Viet Nam…. Should the majority of the Negro populations, in these cities alone, move from passive acquiescence in riots to active participation in rebellion, it is obvious what the result would be.

Los Angeles became the pioneer city in the “war on crime.” Through an OLEA grant, it created the first police-helicopter program called Project Sky Night. In 1969 the city also made the country’s first Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. Its first mission was launched on December 8, 1969, at 5:30 in the morning. It was a 300-man attack on the Black Panther Party’s Central Avenue headquarters with battering rams, helicopters, and army tanks against thirteen people who surrendered after a four-hour shootout. Some reporters called it a “mini-Vietnam.” By 1975, 500 such units augmented police departments across the country.

A policy of containment against communism became the main strategy employed during the Cold War by the United States, and the war in Vietnam was justified by Lyndon Johnson under that policy. That meant creating instruments of empire such as a massive military budget, CIA covert operations, and mass bombings. They changed America so much that successive presidents described their own domestic programs as “wars.” Hinton’s book shows that this was more than a phrase, but an accurate description. The war on poverty and the war on crime were in reality domestic containment operations. When the war on poverty failed, escalation seemed logical.

But did the “war on crime” work? No, because crime statistics in urban America went up from the 1960s to the 1990s. After Nixon expanded Johnson’s war on crime with more programs and more money, total crime in eight cities rose more than 43 percent from 1972 to 1976. In Baltimore crime went up 50 percent during that time and in Dallas, which launched its own helicopter-response system, it shot up 82 percent.

America’s attempts at nation-building in places such as South Vietnam and Iraq have been dismal failures. Launching wars on crime and drugs hasn’t fixed America’s inner cities either, although it has cost hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money in police buildings and prison construction. It remains the federal government’s most important bipartisan domestic policy today and adversely affected the police officer’s relationship with his community and people’s relationship with local, state, and federal governments.

Reprinted from the Future of Freedom Foundation.

About Mike Swanson

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