Why We're Locking So Many People Up

Our skyrocketing incarceration rates are less related to crime than to racial politics, tough-on-crime rhetoric and for-profit prisons.
  • Transcript


Question: Why have incarceration rates skyrocketed in recent years?

Robert Perkinson: There’s a lot of reasons.  I think it’s a momentous shift in American history, and it’s really a divergence... a place where the U.S. diverged from Europe and other industrial democracies.  You know, incarceration rates in most democracies are pretty stable and were for most of American history. But starting in the late 1960’s, the U.S. changed course pretty radically and incarceration rates quintupled over the last third of the 20th century.  

Conventional wisdom is that it must have something to do with crime.  Turns out it doesn’t.  Crime rates fluctuate pretty much independent of or largely independent of incarceration rates and what I argue in the book is that it really has to do with politics, and in particular it has to do with racial politics.

Have tough-on-crime rhetoric and sentencing guidelines affected incarceration rates?

Robert Perkinson: What I’m arguing is like the big causative shift has to do with the backlash against civil rights and the kind of Southern strategy in the way Democrats have tried to protect their right flank by throwing criminal defendants to the wolves in a sense.  But there’s all sorts of legislative initiatives that have gone through that have made that happen.  And certainly sentencing guidelines have had the unintended consequence of shifting discretionary... shifting discretion from judges to prosecutors, because almost all cases are dealt with and plea bargains and it’s meant that the real decision on how much time someone is going to do takes place at filing, rather than in a court room.  And even more than that, mandatory minimums.  

But there’s all sorts of, you know, every legislative session from the 1970’s forward has had, in every state almost and in the federal government have had different kind of foci and different slogans, “Zero Tolerance,” “Mandatory Minimums,” “Three Strikes.”  All of them have converged to build the largest prison system in the world.

Question: How have for-profit prisons changed the way we incarcerate people?

Robert Perkinson: They have some.  My own sense is not as much as some critics of the so-called "prison industrial complex" think.  You know, Texas locks up more people in private prisons than anywhere else; there’s 20,000 of them.  My own state where I am now living in, Hawai'i, ships a huge part of its population to private prisons on the mainland to the desert prison in Arizona and it’s mostly indigenous Hawai'ians there who are bearing the brunt of the drug war and that kind of war on crime.  And those private prison companies are skilled lobbyists.  They often hire former bureaucrats, former legislators, former lieutenant governors to make their case.  And I think in some cases, they have... in many cases they have argued for longer sentences and tougher law enforcement as a way to generate demand for their services.  But I don’t think you can—and they’ve done that successfully.  So some small extent of breathtaking prison growth in America can probably be attributed to the profit motive.  There’s even more money to be made in construction contracts for new prisons.  But there’s a whole lot of ways that private industry can feed at the trough of government.  And I don’t know that prison lobbyists are any more effective than road contractors or even people who could build community colleges if government were going in a different direction.  

And also, some states have very high rates of prison growth—California, for instance—with no private industry because the guard union there is so powerful and so effective that they are well paid compared to correction officers across the rest of the country, and they have thus far, though we’ll see what happens in the next few months, been able to avoid much privatization.

Recorded April 14, 2010