Why We're Locking So Many People Up

Question: Why have incarceration rates skyrocketed in recent \r\nyears?

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

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

\r\n Have tough-on-crime rhetoric and sentencing guidelines affected \r\nincarceration rates?

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

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

Question: How have \r\nfor-profit prisons changed the way we incarcerate people?

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

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

Recorded April 14, 2010

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

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