Locked in. the True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform/Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle over Criminal Justice

By Aviram, Hadar | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Locked in. the True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform/Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle over Criminal Justice


Aviram, Hadar, Law & Society Review


Locked in. The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform. By John Pfaff. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle Over Criminal Justice. By Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, and Michelle Phelps. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Virtually every public conversation about American punishment begins with the quintessential chart: a timeline of incarceration rates, stable until the early 1970s, then alarmingly rising through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, until a slight decline in the late 2000s. This striking visual aid goes hand in hand with a "standard story": after several decades of following a rehabilitative punishment model (albeit not without some serious discontents), the Nixon administration made crime a national issue and zealously pursued punitive policies-partly in response to the reality of rising violent crime rates, and partly in a top-down, politically motivated effort to target the civil rights movement and African Americans. The fed- eral government funneled funds into municipal police departments and kicked the war on drugs into high gear, resulting not only in skyrocketing incarceration rates and overcrowding prisons, but also in shameful racial disparities among those caught in the system's clutches. The standard story invariably also involves the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), highlighting the role of the private prison industry and commercial interests in the growth of incarceration.

That this narrative has been so successfully disseminated out of academia and into the progressive conversation about incarceration was evident in the last U.S. elections, in which both Democratic can- didates addressed police violence, racial discrimination, and the fate of private prisons. But this story has been, in some ways, the victim of its own success, and in recent years several important works have highlighted its problems and inaccuracies. Naomi Murakawa (2014) and Elizabeth Hinton (2016) have highlighted the role played by liberal democrats in the rise of mass incarceration, looking at Nix- on's presidency as a continuation, rather than a shift, of policy pri- orities and practices. James Forman (2017) and Marie Gottschalk (2014) have complicated the simplistic story of racial disparities. The two new books reviewed here-Locked In by John Pfaffand Breaking the Pendulum by Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, and Michelle Phelps-go a step further, offering fundamental revisions of the very premise of the incarceration story.

Pfaff's main objective in the book is to marshal simple but con- vincing data analysis to show that, not only does the "standard story" incorrectly explain mass incarceration, but also leads us astray in directing our reform efforts toward "highly salient but ulti- mately less important issues" (112). Pfaffidentifies two main cul- prits-the first of which is the war on drugs. Contrary to commonly made assumptions, shows Pfaff, drug-related offending contributes relatively little to the incarceration population. He attributes this error to a reversed causality: drug enforcement might follow, rather than cause, violent crime. Moreover, his data complicates some of the commonly made racial critiques of drug enforcement policies (an effort in which he echoes Gottschalk and Forman's works.). Pfaff's analysis rings true and important, though he too readily dis- misses the importance of reforming the drug system for the sake of those caught in the federal system. It is true, as Pfaffsays, that reforms "pay too much attention to the federal criminal justice sys- tem," which "focuses much more heavily on drugs than state systems do" (13) but incarcerates merely 12% of U.S. prisoners; but the flagrant injustices of the federal system, atypical as they may be, merit attention in and of themselves (Lynch 2016). He also easily ignores a considerable body of scholarship that specifically addresses criminal justice in the states precisely because local con- text is important, such as Barker's three-state comparison (2009), Gilmore's analysis of California (2006), Perkinson's analysis of Texas (2010), and Lynch's analysis of Arizona (2009). …

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