Why Are So Many Americans in Prison?
Race and the transformation of criminal justice
The early 1990s were the age of drive-by shootings, drug deals gone bad, crack cocaine, and gangsta rap. Between 1960 and 1990, the annual number of murders in New Haven rose from six to 31, the number of rapes from four to 168, the number of robberies from 16 to 1,784—all this while the city’s population declined by 14 percent. Crime was concentrated in central cities: in 1990, two fifths of Pennsylvania’s violent crimes were committed in Philadelphia, home to one seventh of the state’s population. The subject of crime dominated American domestic-policy debates.
Most observers at the time expected things to get worse. Consulting demographic tables and extrapolating trends, scholars and pundits warned the public to prepare for an onslaught, and for a new kind of criminal—the anomic, vicious, irreligious, amoral juvenile “super-predator.” In 1996, one academic commentator predicted a “bloodbath” of juvenile homicides in 2005.
And so we prepared. Stoked by fear and political opportunism, but also by the need to address a very real social problem, we threw lots of people in jail, and when the old prisons were filled we built new ones.
But the onslaught never came. Crime rates peaked in 1992 and have dropped sharply since. Even as crime rates fell, however, imprisonment rates remained high and continued their upward march. The result, the current American prison system, is a leviathan unmatched in human history.
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