Big Prisons, Big Dreams: Crime and the Failure of America's Penal System

Big Prisons, Big Dreams: Crime and the Failure of America's Penal System

Big Prisons, Big Dreams: Crime and the Failure of America's Penal System

Big Prisons, Big Dreams: Crime and the Failure of America's Penal System


The American prison system has grown tenfold since the 1970s, but crime rates in the United States have not decreased. This doesn't surprise Michael J. Lynch, a critical criminologist, who argues that our oversized prison system is a product of our consumer culture, the public's inaccurate beliefs about controlling crime, and the government's criminalizing of the poor.

While deterrence and incapacitation theories suggest that imprisoning more criminals and punishing them leads to a reduction in crime, case studies, such as one focusing on the New York City jail system between 1993 and 2003, show that a reduction in crime is unrelated to the size of jail populations. Although we are locking away more people, Lynch explains that we are not targeting the worst offenders. Prison populations are comprised of the poor, and many are incarcerated for relatively minor robberies and violence. America's prison expansion focused on this group to the exclusion of corporate and white collar offenders who create hazardous workplace and environmental conditions that lead to deaths and injuries, and enormous economic crimes. If America truly wants to reduce crime, Lynch urges readers to rethink cultural values that equate bigger with better.


This book was written in response to troubling trends in American society. Since 9/11, America has been edging closer and closer to a limited democracy that accepts the curtailment of freedom and the enhancement of governmental power and control as the price for safety. This movement, however, has been underway for decades in the way America responds to crime, especially street crimes, or those offenses most likely to be engaged in by the lower classes and Americans of color. It is no accident that these crimes, more so than the more harmful behaviors of corporate and government officials, are the prime subject of crime control, and that the prime suspects are those unlike [us]—they represent economic decay and difference.

It is also no accident that America's use of imprisonment has grown so dramatically in recent decades, and that the prison targets the poor and minorities. This is true despite the fact that they also do not represent the greatest threat to our health and well-being. Rather, it is the corporate criminal who pollutes the environment, uses his economic and political power to alter the course of American politics and law, who poses the greatest threat to the average American. But this book is not about them; it is about the runaway train that has become America's penal system.

Today the average citizen regards the prison as an appropriate response to crime; and so too do America's politicians. As a result, the rate of imprisonment in the United States has expanded exponentially since 1973. Since then, the number of inmates imprisoned in the United States has grown each and every year. More than thirty years later, our prison system is the biggest in the world, in terms of both raw numbers and rates. And, contrary to popular opinion, the United States has the longest average prison sentences of any nation in the world. And still, we have a substantial level of crime.

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