The way we talk about prisons

Mike Konczal’s piece from the WaPo linking the economy with declines in the prison population caught my eye, too. Rather than echoing Keith’s point about the manifest falsity – or methodological futility, for that matter – of establishing the association, I’ll highlight a different aspect of the story.

In the five years since the economy tanked, there’s been a recognisable shift in the way people talk about justice policy. The Urban Institute’s John Roman put together a nifty graphic that illustrates how the policy recommendations of various interest groups have aligned in light of recent fiscal instability.

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The graphic itself is an intentional over-simplification in two respects. Firstly, it glosses over important disagreements within the various factions. For example, Jerry Brown’s repeatedly petulant efforts to vacate the CDCR’s receivership attests to the internecine struggles playing out in Californian justice policy. Secondly, it’s a crude characterisation of each faction’s policy imperative. For example, I think the reason Democrats argue for reductions in the prison population has less to do with “Prevention” than with dignity, and I think Republicans are more interested in reducing the prison population for financial reasons than any appeal to sensibilities about ‘principles of least governance’. But the main point of the graphic still stands: the ways that various interest groups talk about justice policy have, for the most part, begun to show striking similarities.

The convergence is especially significant when we look at the history of justice reform discourse. Left-wing reform advocates in the 1970s faded into obscurity once the mainstream successfully framed the left’s efforts as incitements to violent revolution. In response, the left further entrenched its oppositional stance against right-wing justice reform advocates by arguing that the right’s efforts to silence their voice ignited the kindling that fuelled law-and-order policies from the 1970s onwards. The rhetorical adversarialism of the ‘70s bore no resemblance to the way the prisoner’s rights movement has since been accepted nowadays as a mainstream force (for example, look at the nationally positive reception of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow). NGOs and think-tanks from both sides of the aisle now talk about prison reform using similar vocabularies and advocate similar strategies, in a manner that would have been unthinkable one or two decades ago.

It’s the contribution of criminologists in the national conversation, however, that animates my own optimism going forward. With the exception of a handful of names like James Q. Wilson and John DiIulio, criminologists remained largely absent from the policy table since Robert Martinson in 1974.

Again, this is no longer so nowadays. The fallow land that Martinson unwittingly left behind has been assiduously cultivated, and recent years have witnessed a rapprochement between criminologists and correctional administrators. Rehabilitation research (for example, see evidence from North America and Europe) has reached the incontrovertible conclusion that under tightly monitored and well-implemented circumstances, we can drastically improve the life chances available to offenders leaving prison. The place that scientific expertise about rehabilitation occupies in today’s public imagination is far removed from the authoritarian, paternalistic interpretations that were given voice in works from the ’70s by Szasz and others. It is now much more empirically sound, and critically informed. Consequently, criminology is now well situated to make real public policy improvements, in California as elsewhere.

Public policy rhetoric surrounding prisons is thus changing. Mass incarceration is being framed as both a health issue, and with increasing appreciation of felon disenfranchisement, labour exclusion and census bias, it is also framed as a civil rights issue.

Konczal is wrong to worry about whether the economy is a driver of the prison population. But it’s had important implications for the way we talk about prison policy. With a little historical perspective, we can appreciate quite how significant that really is.

10 thoughts on “The way we talk about prisons”

  1. It may be only of historical interest now, but was it really the case that “left-wing reform advocates in the 1970s faded into obscurity once the mainstream successfully framed the left’s efforts as incitements to violent revolution”? I was under the impression that left-wing reformers got stereotyped as limp-wristed and sentimental advocates of criminals rather than victims.
    Separately: has the restorative justice movement – which one can capsule as a left-wing concern with the rights of victims – any traction in the US debate?

    1. James,
      Have you read Rick Perlstein? He’s causing many of us to rethink America’s ’60’s and ’70’s. More specifically, Nixonism was a demagogic response to a real fear. A rational person in 1969 could believe that society was falling apart, and genuinely fear the crazies of the Left. (Gun worship, for instance, was characteristic of the Left in the 1960’s much more than the Right.)

    2. You highlight another dimension along which battle lines were drawn in the 1970s justice reform discourse: victims’ rights advocates on one hand, and prisoners’ rights on the other. Yes, the prisoners’ rights advocates were most certainly framed as inciting violent revolution. Many of them took their cues from the prominent inmate intellectuals, including George Jackson, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver. Cleaver notably wrote about rapes he performed on white women as being, in his words, “insurrectionary” (and those performed on black women as “practice”) in Soul on Ice.

      As for the restorative justice movement, I’m not confident saying whether it’s gained traction one way or another. While this may just be a Berkeley thing, the fact that a class on restorative justice is offered here in the law school (a prestigious American law school, no less), and is well-attended, strikes me as no small accomplishment.

  2. Mark Kleiman’s take on what happened left/right wise is intriguing and is captured toward the end of this 90 second video

    Johann: Good post. The other over-simplification of the graph is that it moves academics outside the political process. Criminologists have politics too, and they were almost universally left wing for a long time (We think they were more conservative because conservatives were over-represented among the very best, like Wilson).

    1. Looks to me as if Mark basically agrees with me, but he can of course speak for himself. But the European left he criticises is not the social-democratic governments that have often been elected. They have been extraordinarily cautious, even passive, in reforming the criminal justice system. Foucault and Gramsci may be admired, but not followed.

    2. I’m not sure that I can follow Mark’s reasoning there.

      First, I’m not seeing a crime wave in Europe. Crime rates in Europe over the past decade or so can probably best be described as “fluctuating”.

      Second, insofar as any Western European countries implemented policies that are “soft on crime”, that generally happened decades ago. Governments have changed since then (often multiple times) and any such policies are currently co-owned by both left- and right-wing governments. Also, it’s not as though social democratic or socialist governments have never implemented “tough on crime” laws (for example, the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was enacted by a Labour government).

      Finally, I’m skeptical about claims that the rise of right-wing extremist parties in Europe is solely or primarily due to crime. My impression is that right-wing extremism in Europe has been fueled primarily by immigration. While beliefs about migrant crime are part of that mix, so is fear of losing jobs to foreigners or fear of Ãœberfremdung. Some examples are the platforms of the British UKIP and the Swiss SVP (two far right parties with actual and considerable success at the ballot box).

  3. There was some odd convergences between left and right even in the 70’s and 80’s. If I’m not mistaken, the American Friends Service Committee, in their important book, Struggle for Justice of 1971, argued for abolishing parole, on the grounds that it was being granted for arbitrary and racially biased reasons. And, later, ‘truth in sentencing’ right-wingers argued for its abolition on the grounds that offenders were not serving their full sentences.

    1. And even later. Left and right often both supported mandatory minimums, the right to reduce the downward discretion of “soft” judges, the left to reduce the ability of “hard” judges to discriminate by race in determining sentences.

    2. As I recall, Stephen Jay Gould claimed in “The Mismeasure of Man” that parole had been invented as a means of distinguishing the reformable from the biologically criminal, on racist and eugenicist grounds.

  4. 2012 BJS advance counts ( show the prison population dropped from 1.57m by ~30k. Half of the decline was CA, which was (largely) spurred by litigation rather than a change of heart in the legislative or executive branches. That said, leadership in some states is tackling this issue head-on and seeking to make these reforms part of their legacy. In addition to the contextual factors described above, it’s worth acknowledging the role of key elected officials who are compelled to address these issues (either because they emerged from a CJ system that now distresses them, or they emerged from a state legislature that they view as spiraling away).

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