We were driven to the police station in four separate cruisers, where I was placed in an all-metal holding cell until my parents arrived. During the interrogation, my father encouraged me to tell the officers “the truth,” assuring me everything would be fine. Looking back, it’s clear we should have called a lawyer. In court the next day, I was arraigned for a felony: “use and possession of an explosive device.” The charge carried a maximum sentence of two years in prison. Sitting next to me in the courtroom, my mother cried as she watched a group of juveniles trudge down the aisle in orange jumpsuits, their shackles jingling.
But I was never put in shackles. Instead, I was “diverted” from the criminal justice system. Several hundred dollars in legal fees later, my lawyer arranged a cushy deal with the district attorney: All I had to do was read a book on “smart teenage decisions,” complete one hundred hours of community service, and stay out of trouble for one year of probation. On my eighteenth birthday, I got a letter in the mail explaining that, due to my exemplary “character” and demonstrated “rehabilitation,” my record had been expunged. It said I could now “legally lie” about the incident. As a white kid from a wealthy suburb, I benefited from an escape hatch built into the system for people like me.
Contrast this with my experience teaching at a public high school in the Bronx, where the student body is half African American and half Latino, and 100 percent qualify for free lunch. Every student has to pass through metal detectors to enter the building. Stop and think for a moment how it feels to shuffle through airport security. Now imagine beginning every morning with that tiresome tango: single-file line, empty your pockets, shoes off, beep, try again. The girls even have to remove the bobby pins from their hair. “This place feels like prison,” the students often complain. And they’re right, for the implicit message behind the metal detectors is that every student—regardless of past or present behavior—is considered potentially dangerous.
To make sense of the divergent experiences of my students and myself, we might focus on the decisions made by local actors: a district attorney and school officials, in these cases. Yet this would also miss the bigger picture. As Harvard historian Elizabeth Hinton shows in her new book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, we can trace these experiences to decisions made half a century ago at the highest levels of government. In other words, these two episodes were really two sides of the same coin.
The past fifty years have seen the United States build the largest prison system on the planet. Recently scholars have debated the origins of the incarceration crisis. Some, like historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad and legal scholar Michelle Alexander, have drawn attention to long historical continuities in the social construction of black criminality. Others have focused on shifting party politics during the civil rights era, namely how Republicans like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon blamed Democrats for the widespread social unrest and called for the restoration of “law and order.” Still others have shown how enterprising politicians declared a “War on Drugs” by urging draconian prison sentences in response to an epidemic of drug addiction.
Hinton adds something new to the debate. Focusing on federal policies, she, like political scientist Naomi Murakawa, sees mass incarceration as “a thoroughly bipartisan story.” Yet Hinton zooms in on a precise historical juncture: Lyndon Johnson’s paradoxical decision to simultaneously declare war on both poverty and crime. Although the Johnson administration invested over $1 billion in programs like Head Start and Job Corps, liberal policymakers like Daniel Patrick Moynihan understood racialized poverty to be a manifestation of pathological individual behaviors, not a structural condition created by deindustrialization. The basic problem, officials argued, was broken families, deadbeat dads, and “deviant” values. As such, “equal opportunity” and “self-help”—not job creation or structural changes—became the guiding principles of social welfare policy.
The nation witnessed 250 separate incidents of urban unrest during Johnson’s administration—the first occurring in Harlem in July 1964—and behavioralist assumptions decisively influenced policymakers’ response. Despite the fact that these incidents usually broke out in segregated neighborhoods with upwards of 30 percent unemployment, and despite the fact that police brutality nearly always sparked them, officials turned to militarized police forces as the solution to the mess. At this critical moment, Hinton says policymakers confused cause and effect. Instead of seeing the urban uprisings as a cry for inclusion and justice, officials rejected the rioters’ demands as illegitimate. The escalation of punitive force, however, “only intensified the problems of crime and poverty that officials aimed to prevent,” she concludes.
Like Detective Lester Freamon in The Wire, Hinton employs a follow-the-money approach to great effect. Two weeks before he signed the Voting Rights Act, Johnson presented Congress with the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, which first established a direct federal role in local police operations. Three years later, in 1968, the Safe Streets Act invested $400 million in the War on Crime, creating the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) to dispense the funding. Through the LEAA, the feds covered 90 percent of the tab as local police departments outfitted themselves with new gadgets like walkie-talkies, bulletproof vests, tanks, helicopters, and M-1 military carbines. This marked a new trend, Hinton asserts, whereby policymakers responded to socioeconomic grievances by arming and equipping local police forces.
Then, as funding for War on Poverty programs withered, the LEAA grew and grew; by 1973, it had doled out nearly $10 billion in taxpayer dollars. In block grants to states, the Nixon administration utilized the LEAA to subsidize 75 percent of the cost of prison construction. It was also the LEAA that provided the seed money for Operation STRESS (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets) in Detroit, where plainclothes police officers killed a young, black male at the rate of once a month during the 1970s; for the first police patrols in impoverished urban schools; and for academic research that justified militarized policing and increased incarceration. What’s more, federal policymakers required social service organizations to begin partnering with law enforcement to be eligible for federal funds. Thus, while it is true that only 10 percent of prisoners are currently housed in federal facilities, Hinton highlights how national policies incentivized state and local officials to expand their network of criminal justice institutions.
The volume and depth of research is impressive. Hinton effectively distills countless speeches, memos, and studies to their most basic arguments. We gain a sense of the big ideas driving carceral policy, as well as snapshots of its worst excesses. Yet the book is told mostly from the perspective of leather office chairs in Washington D.C., a perspective that also has its drawbacks. The reader can at times be lulled into thinking that declarations in policy memos instantly became reality. We don’t always get a sense of the various actors—officers, prosecutors, judges, local politicians—whose discretion undergirds our decentralized criminal justice system. How did each of these actors respond to shifting federal incentives? This, however, is mostly an invitation to future research; the granular case studies have yet to be written.
For much of the time period covered in the book, New York City stood at the center of discussions about urban policing. During the tenures of mayors Ed Koch, David Dinkins, and Rudy Giuliani, crime and drugs were among the most controversial campaign issues. Similarly, in 1973 Governor Nelson Rockefeller signed into law the harshest penalties nationwide for the possession and sale of narcotics. Yet the assumptions framing the issues, as well as much of the funding, stemmed from federal agencies and policies. As Hinton shows, the issues were local, but the origins national.
When the video of Eric Garner being suffocated went viral two years ago, it made plain the disastrous consequences of militarized policing practices. As was the case after the murders of Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Ramarley Graham, serious questions have been raised about the use of deadly force, as well the capacity of district attorneys to indict police officers. These discussions are urgent and necessary. But we must not lose sight of the big picture. A set of basic assumptions has, from the very beginning, driven the growth of the carceral state: My plea bargain, the metal detectors in my students’ school, and trigger-happy officers are each the product of decades of policies that have branded some people more criminal than others. This book, though, offers an entry point to reexamine the root causes of poverty, crime, and inequality.
Michael R. Glass is a PhD student at Princeton University. His research explores the intersection of housing and education inequality in the New York City metropolitan region.
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