This is actually a two-part problem. First you have to figure out what’s caused the explosion in prison populations. Then you have to figure out what can be done to fix it. And the ‘solution’ will depend both on the accuracy of your list of causes and on what’s possible to do at this point to fix the mess.
David Cole reviews several books in the ‘The New York Review of Books’.
And mess it is. And an ominous mess. We now imprison 40% more of Our population than Russia and Belarus, Our nearest competitors in the imprisoning-citizens game.
But Our 2.3 million imprisoned constitute “only” two thirds of one percent of the population. I take it that’s on the basis of about 300 million (although I’m never sure if that includes illegal immigrants as well as everybody else). This does not, however, take into consideration all of the former-imprisoned, those on parole, those who now have ‘records’ (a sizable fraction of the population), and if you toss in everybody on the domestic violence and sex-offender registries (about 1 in every 230 males for the latter) then you’re looking at a country with a big problem.
And, for that matter, a Citizenry with a big problem – because when governments get to this level of imposition then the whole train is heading for a cliff.
And as Harvey Silverglate points out in his recent book “Three Felonies a Day”, Federal criminal codes have so expanded that just about everybody commits an average of three federal felonies a day whether they know it or not. Which should be food for some thought, especially among those who consider themselves to be not-the-criminal-‘type’. We’re all criminals now.
One book, by Glenn C. Loury, under review wants to draw attention to the frighteningly high rates of incarceration among the black – and especially male – population. Over half of the prison population is black now.
One factoid is more enlightening than it’s given credit for: “Nearly 60 percent of all black men born between 1965 and 1969 who dropped out of high school went to prison at least once on a felony conviction before they turned thirty-five … and the incarceration rate for this group – black male high school dropouts – is nearly fifty times the national average”.
But even nowadays, Loury reports an ominous “ripple effect”: “for an entire cohort of young black men in America’s inner cities, incarceration has become a more-likely-than-not norm, not the unthinkable exception”. And once they ‘return to society’, lacking skills and training, their prospects for employment, housing and marriage drop sharply. This is even more true of children from single-parent households and with a parent in prison.
Loury notes that “many people cannot tell whether an African-American is a dropout or college-educated … or a burglar or a college professor”. I’m not sure I agree with the presumed non-criminal propensities of college faculty, but let that be for now.
“The correlation of race and crime in the public’s mind reinforces prejudice that affects every African-American” (I thought this term had been disestablished by the PC Terminology Board, but maybe I’m not getting all the Memos).
Well, the causes of this admittedly monster problem are various. But they’ve hardly been hidden. In the Age of A Hundred Revolutions, the agenda of one Identity did not necessarily cooperate with the agenda best for another Identity. Nor was Congress going to do any serious thinking (it might then have to say No to some ‘demand’) about the Big Picture or Consequences (intended, unintended, unforeseeable, forseeable, unpredictable, predictable … this is all wayyyy too much thinking for the Beltway).
Thus the destruction of the Family and Marriage and Parental Authority – not simply in the wake of witless Hippy and Boomer overconfidence in their own groovy feelings and illuminations, but also as a very intended consequence of the radical feminist objective of freeing ‘women’ and delegitimizing anything (thoughts, traditions, common sense) that would stand in the way of that objective – worked to wreck the vital infrastructure of black (and generally American) community.
The equally intended assault on religious belief and such ‘abstractions’ as Character, Competence, Maturity, Responsibility, Self-Sacrifice (JFK’s Inaugural about what-you-can-do-for-your-country would not have received much approval among feminists, Identity Politics agitators, Multiculturalists, and other such PC revolutionaries – in case anybody gets teary-eyed at the great ‘liberal alliance’) has wrought profound damage to the entire foundational infrastructure of American society, culture, and civilization, and on top of that, flowing downhill as such stuff always does, that assault (‘reforms’ and ‘liberations’ if you like) created lethal synergies among the most vulnerable communities.
None of this stunning menu of frakkery can accurately be described as “racism”, and you can see where it’s going to be hard to fix a problem that by its very nature implicates the deliberate agendas of still-powerful Identities and their political fellow travelers and useful idiots in the Beltway and on Capitol Hill.
Cole then sets himself to explaining the visions of “three recent books by scholars who happen to be black men” [italics mine]. That italicized phrase strikes me as decidedly odd, and in Our modern American reality, such weirdling phraseology usually means that it’s code for something, known only to the enlightened and those who ‘get it’. ‘Three scholars’ is fine, maybe ‘three black scholars’ if you insist, but what’s this cutesy crap about their happening to be black men? What sort of junior-varsity snark is this? Around what tables is this sort of thing considered ‘enlightened’? And what is Cole doing sitting around them?
Loury, revealingly, asserts that “mass incarceration has now become a principle vehicle for the reproduction of racial hierarchies in our society”. Which means that he would like to think of it all as a some new twist on the ‘racism cause’.
That gambit has its temptations: you can hoist up an old but familiar flag (‘racism’) while simultaneously not running afoul of the other voracious Identities who won’t take kindly to your next dinner party or speaking invitation if you start following the darkling threads back to their own weavings. A steady supply of Kudos and Cash as you demonstrate your ‘committed scholarship’ without doing too much serious or hard-hitting investigation. I’ve been noticing law enforcement and prosecutors doing much the same thing for quite a few years: just find an ‘acceptable’ suspect and pin it on him, regardless of any connection or lack of connection to the crime.
So it’s all about “race” and the country can go back to the ‘liberal’ salad-days of the early-60s, before it all began to go – you should pardon the expression – south.
Another professor, and of law – author of ‘Let’s Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice’ – asserts that “the two million Americans in prison represent the most urgent challenge to democratic values since the civil rights era”.
Notice right off the clarion look-back to the salad days.
I can only agree with him heartily that Our imprisoned masses constitute a serious problem. But that huge rate of imprisonment is itself a result of causes far deeper down. Yes, ‘democratic values’ are under threat, but from the National Nanny State as much as from the National Security State: both States see a hugely engorged and invasive role for government police power; and even though the NNS is of the Left and the NSS is from the Right, they are both working toward that engorgement of the federal police power.
And in ‘victimism’ they struck up a mutual alliance: the Victim replaces the Citizen, the ‘criminal’ or ‘perp’ is no longer a Citizen, and out of both ‘sensitivity’ (the Left) and a zeal for law and order (the Right) the intrusive government authority is continually expanded, with the ‘text’ of the Constitution being ‘deconstructed’ since it is, after all, ineradicably tainted by the oppressiveness of its dead white male authors.
(And this burning government sensitivity to whomever can be characterized as a victim has been exported overseas, as exemplified in Bosnia in the mid-1990s and Iraq and Afghanistan for almost a decade now.)
And on a deeper level, just how do you ground ‘democratic values’ when Family and Maturity and Responsibility are not only not-taught because there is no familial and parental infrastructure to do that essential job, but also because such concepts and institutions in the culture have been declared ‘quaint’ if not also ‘oppressive’?
How do you keep ‘democratic values’ alive when there is no school for them? Or when ‘children’ are not being raised into the skills and competencies of genuine maturity?
And another law prof booms about “the pervasive interplay of race, power, and politics that infuse and confuse our attitudes about crime”.
Once again, it’s a safe indictment. I could only agree with him if he’s going really really deep with that “politics” – as in Identity Politics and ‘deconstruction’ and so forth. But I’m thinking he’s not.
Stunningly, the Hip-Hop law prof tells a ‘story’ (as is de rigeur among the cadres): raised by a single mother in a Chicago ghetto, he graduated from Yale and Harvard Law, clerked for a federal judge, worked for a big Washington law firm, and became a federal prosecutor. That’s a whole lotta success – and you’d figure that anybody who made it through so many gate-keepers must have had the right stuff for mature professional competence.
But then – suddenly – he got into a dispute over a parking spot. He was “arrested, handcuffed, booked, and prosecuted” – which is curious, since law enforcement types usually look out for their own in minor matters. But it gets better: a police officer lied on the stand and his landlord refused to testify in his behalf and then he “let his own anger get the better of him when he testified”. Lordie, there’s a story in here that isn’t being told.
Acquitted by the jury he decided to leave his job a few months later. A skeptic might wonder if somehow they wanted him gone, but he is certain that he left under his own steam because of disillusionment: “My sense of justice has always been big and bulging” he booms (and one can only wonder).
Be that as it all may, he now styles himself a “recovering prosecutor” and uses his law classes as a way to incite students to resist a criminal justice system that “defines too many activities as crimes, enforces its laws selectively, and incarcerates too many of its own citizens”. Well, I can’t disagree with any of that.
But let’s not forget that what this country has been through in the past 40-plus years is enough to give any serious Citizen pause: the Boomers and Hippies essentially said that ‘conformity’ to any ‘grown-up’ stuff is oppressive and they were going to be liberated; the Identities of the Seventies raised that illumination into a philosophy and a political one at that: liberation from oppression, especially that perpetrated by dead white macho males; sex – in all respects – was the most clear demonstration of liberation, although any refusal to accept ‘conformity’ was a sign that you ‘get it’.
Once a couple of cohorts of kids were raised into that shapeless, bubbling stew, you can imagine that not simply Nixonian ‘law and order’ but any sort of Shape and Order to culture and society at all were going to be gone.
And somebody or something was going to have to impose them.
Enter the government police power, at the behest of both the Nanny and the Security States.
And an increasingly under-parented youth grew into an assortment of ‘liberated victims’ who needed their government to avenge the wrongs done unto them. The government’s price would be unthinking acquiescence, but since few were educated and raised to think anyway, it seemed no great loss.
But a government can only make and impose laws. It cannot provide that Shape and sense of Self and of Meaning and Purpose that has to come much earlier in a human’s life than the voting-age, and must be much more deeply rooted than in a political compact. Parents and some form of religion and a Beyond are indispensable, especially to a free People comprised of mature and competent individuals.
The Boomer-Identities cartoon of what a human being is cannot long sustain a democratic politics or a Constitutional Republic. Such a cartoon is fit only to describe herds – starving and powerless, or well-provided-for (like college faculties and ‘elites’) – but herds in any case.
In the case of the ‘elites’ one recalls the glossy-coated, well-fed soup rabbits penned up in a marvelous grassy enclosure behind a building in the 1970s novel “Watership Down”, looking down their finely-groomed muzzles at the scruffy band of rabbits seeking freedom and not willing to be penned up. Suitably embarrassed at their own lack of nice coats, the free band spends the night outside the fence that separates them from the glossy ones.
It was only with the passage of a day or two that they noticed that each night a glossy one disappeared, and worse, that the next morning the remaining glossies did not even notice, nor wanted to be reminded of the absence.
They were being kept fat and fed and ‘safe’ so that they could be used for soup, of course, but had convinced themselves they were elite and far above the common herd of rabbitry.
Amazingly, the review notes that “until 1975 the United States’ criminal justice system was roughly in line with much of Europe”. But in the 35 ensuing years the incarceration rate increased seven-fold, from 100 per 100,000 to 700 per 100,000. It continues that “this growth rate is not attributable to increased offending rates but to an increased punitiveness”.
But of course, it is precisely in that time-frame that two ‘liberations’ began to be felt: first, the late Sixties Hippy sense that you don’t need to conform but instead you just need to ‘be yourself’ and then the assorted ‘wars’ on crime: the drug war which responded to the increased use of recreational drugs by the Hippy-Boomers and by the increasingly frakked inner city communities; and second, the increasing deployment of the criminal law against the designated enemies (especially ‘men) of the feminist revolutionaries. Criminal law would ‘send a message’ from those who ‘got it’ to everybody who ‘just didn’t get it’; criminal law would be “expressive”, regardless of whether it was Constitutional.
Criminal law was becoming the primary formation instrument in the country, in the absence of Maturity and Family and Authority of any other sort. And then the Republicans came along in the mid-1990s with their Contract With America, which although it claimed to want to get government out of everybody’s life, actually had also promised to impose ‘law and order’.
Given the thorough and profound wrack and ruin visited upon the black communities by the assorted ‘liberations’, it is no wonder that under-parented youth – especially males – were signally unprepared to face the challenges of conducting a life. And as the entire national economy began to slide away from the ideals of the New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society (as originally conceived), the economic pressures on those inner city communities joined in a lethal synergy with the underlying societal and cultural damage imposed by the assorted ‘liberations’.
I don’t know how you can clearly distinguish ‘racism’ as a primary cause of the current state of affairs.
But I can see how such a widespread civic and personal incompetence could fuel non-black perceptions that would fuel a new type of categorization or ‘hierarchy’. But the old ‘racism’ it is not.
And what to do as prisoners are released? Under-Shaped as children, then dumped into the Dante-esque hell of prison, then released much the worse for that experience into a nation whose economy can promise few decent jobs even to those without ‘a record’ … what can possibly be done to address so complex and interlocked a set of problems?
And how to ‘raise’ a human being now past the hugely vital formative period of childhood? And can We expect the government – any earthly government – to be able to do it?
A Constitutional Republic cannot survive if the government is expected to act as a parent. And a democratic politics and a competent Citizenry cannot be comprised of individuals who have chronologically reached adulthood but have not achieved personal maturity and self-mastery.
This is a recipe for catastrophe, humanly, democratically, Constitutionally.
And Cole rightly asks where the “political will” can be found to tackle this thing. It’s a good question. After all, do the ‘elites’ and their legislative fellow-travellers and useful idiots really want to examine a complex and monstrous brute of a problem that they themselves have most vigorously helped to create?
And this is the fierce urgency of Now.