Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Prison Crisis: An Essay on the Social and Political Foundations of Criminal Justice Policy

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Prison Crisis: An Essay on the Social and Political Foundations of Criminal Justice Policy

Article excerpt

Flying in the face of conventional wisdom that America "coddles" criminals, the U.S. now leads the world in imprisoning its citizens (Mauer, 1991). There are now over 1,300,000 incarcerated in prisons and jails (Gilliard, 1993:2; Beck, Bonczar, and Gilliard, 1993:2), with thirty-seven states under court order to remedy overcrowding or other deplorable conditions in prisons (Maguire, Pastore, and Flanagan, 1993:113-114). The fiscal and moral costs of the imprisonment stampede are enormous: the true cost of incarceration is perhaps as high as $39,000 (Irwin and Austin, 1994:144-145) and $70,000 for elderly inmates (Durham, 1994:95), with the impact of imprisonment on crime rates being dubious at best. (See, especially, Steffensmeier and Harer, 1991, 1993).

The most significant cost, however, may well be the enormous moral toll bulging prisons are having on the social and moral fabric of American society. Incredible as it seems, "Black males in the United States are incarcerated at a rate four times that of Black males in South Africa (under the Apartheid regime) (Mauer, 1991:3). It should be noted here as well that an increasing body of research demonstrates that this racial disproportionality is less the product of differential involvement in imprisonable offenses than it is substantially the result of unemployment and discrimination. (See, especially, Sabol, 1989; Chiricos and Bales, 1991; Blumstein, 1993).

Given the stark reality of the prison crisis (a crisis that has every indication of worsening), it is possible to halt and even reverse the reliance on imprisonment. If so, what conditions must be present and what strategies must be employed to accomplish that end? All of this is of enormous importance for longer sentences have been partially responsible for bulging prison populations (and thus the cost of confinement diverting resources from more efficacious policies) and have greatly exacerbated racial disproportionality (especially as that applied to drug convictions) (Blumstein, 1993).

Unfortunately, "[t]he distinction between getting tough on crime as opposed to getting tough with usually obscured in the political arena" (Blumstein, 1992:4) with Americans all too often succumbing to simplistic law and order rhetoric, most especially when the subtext plays upon thinly disguised racial fears.


If the prison crisis is to be resolved it is essential to understand its social, political, and ideological foundations. One of the more original and theoretically astute vehicles for understanding what is involved here can be found in Scull (1977). While in important respects, Scull's work can be criticized on empirical grounds, it provides a valuable theoretical and epistemological framework for understanding the relationship between ideas, attitudes, and policies and the social, political and ideological conditions of their acceptance and implementation

Thus, if we accept the fact that there is a prison crisis, the seemingly obvious solution is to change the attitudes (and ideas) of those in a position to have an impact on criminal justice policy in general and penal policy in particular. However obvious that seems, in practice it is profoundly difficult for it assumes that attitude change and the ensuing change in behavior are not constrained by social political, and ideological contexts. As Scull (1977:124) has argued, "[T]he acceptance and application of the 'findings' of social science are dependent not so much on the intrinsic merits of the propositions being advanced but rather on the receptivity of the audience to which they are addressed."

There is a considerable body of research in social psychology that, indirectly at least, confirms Scull. Thus, the literature on persuasive communication suggests (independent of the intrinsic merits of the ideas) that the characteristics of the communicator and the audience (including the motivation of the audience) as well as the personal relevance of the message will influence attitude change. …

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