No president caused — or can solve — scourge of mass incarceration
Local politicians, whom you elect, really control who gets jailed
This year, Americans, as we do every four years, arrange into political factions and elect a president.
A cloud of despair will envelop one faction come November. Four years later, though, disillusionment will haunt the joyous faction after the president fails to usher in the political reforms it so desperately sought. But ignorance of the limitations of the presidency is often the foundation from which this disillusionment originates.
That ignorance is perhaps most palpable in our discussions of how to disentangle ourselves from the racialized evil net of mass incarceration.
No one is immune to this ignorance. Through the popularity of her influential, yet deeply flawed book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander has turned herself into a commanding voice on criminal justice reform. Unfortunately for those praying for mass incarceration’s demise, she often dispatches unserious awfulness from her platform like her claim that “Bill Clinton presided over the largest increase in federal and state prison inmates of any president in American history.” Such aggressive nonsense strips complexity from a gravely serious problem.
Yes, incarceration rose during Clinton’s presidency. But mass incarceration started decades before he took the oath of office and not even his now infamous Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 increased the rate at which the phenomenon occurred.
Alexander’s claim that Clinton “presided over” an increase in imprisonment grants Clinton agency he never possessed and also gives breath to the lie — a lie we must now spend energy and time killing, energy and time we might not have — that since a former president doused an accelerant on the fire of mass incarceration a future president can extinguish it.
States ignited the mass incarceration flame. The numbers, as written by Fordham University School of Law professor John Pfaff, startle:
Between 1925 and 1975, the U.S. incarceration rate hovered around 100 per 100,000. Since then, that rate soared to 504 by 2009, dropping only slightly to 500 in 2010. In absolute numbers, the U.S. prison population grew from 240,593 in 1975 to 1.550 million in 2010. Not just exceptional by historical standards, this boom is unparalleled globally: the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and with just 5% of the world’s population it houses nearly 25% of its prisoners.
Federal prisons contain only 13 percent of the prison population, because the overwhelming majority of criminal behavior violates state, not federal, penal codes.
Louisiana — the North Star for mass incarceration — imprisons 911 per 100,000 people. Blacks, only 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, represent 66 percent of those behind bars.
The hard work of unburdening the masses from incarceration must begin with earnestly examining, not reductively simplifying, the intricacies of our democracy. We must expand our scope of which democratic actors matter. We cannot limit ourselves to just finding fault with presidents.
We must descend upon the states, especially the Deep South, and reckon with the political and racial climate from which mass incarceration flourishes. We must organize in states and cities. Elect state and local representatives who understand this depravity. Who have the ingenuity to initiate its annihilation. Who will wield their scalpel to extract this national blight. We must hoist local elections, not just national elections, into political relevance.
The case of Anita Alvarez, a state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois, should be a teachable moment in the cause to transform a racist criminal justice system. Four hundred long days came and went before she charged police officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, with murder. Black Lives Matter activists organized against her, precipitating her defeat in March’s Democratic primary, and electing a prosecutor who appears more ideologically sympathetic to the movement’s concerns.
Alvarez demonstrates the importance of local elections like that of prosecutors, who run unopposed in 85 percent of general elections, but also the need to grapple with the threat of prosecutorial discretion.
The criminal justice system entrusts prosecutors with enormous power. Their various decisions, including who to prosecute and which charges to bring, affect the size of our prison population and its racial composition.
When black criminal defendants have brought racial discrimination claims against prosecutors, the U.S. Supreme Court has proven unsympathetic. The court has held that defendants must prove prosecutors intentionally discriminated, which requires defendants to produce evidence that sits inside a prosecutor’s mind. A more sympathetic court, however, could reverse this legal doctrine.
Presidents appoint federal judges. The Congress, though, confirms them. And we must appreciate the role the federal judiciary can play in dismantling mass incarceration in order to make appointing judges, and by extension the composition of Congress, a salient issue and reason enough to vote in off-year elections.
Many believe that a president who truly has blacks’ best interests at heart, through moral suasion, can transform racial policy. We are stuck in a seemingly permanent racial rut because that person has yet to call the White House home. This stillborn thought process, though, never digests unavoidable truths: We need better Americans in order to have a better American criminal justice system; the character of a society can never tower above the character of its people; and even a heaven-sent president with a perfect moral compass cannot guide those without one at all.
Mass incarceration began in the 1970s in response to urban crime, then a real and snowballing social menace. Principally on account of race, however, America refused to treat the situational maladies upon which crime feeds — joblessness, hopelessness, poverty, structural racism and the like. Americans, instead, embraced the “tough on crime” mantra and supported warehousing fellow citizens in newly built prisons that quickly peppered the rural countryside.
This white-over-black worldview still occupies the most influential seat in government. And no individual — not even one who sits in the Oval Office — can depose it.
Achieving this feat will require the toil of an exhaustive movement, one with an ear perfectly calibrated to the pitch of American democracy.
We must improve our collective hearing.