Elizabeth Hinton, professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, examines how mass incarceration happened in America in her new book, appropriately titled From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America. Hinton’s approach is novel. Most criminal justice experts cite President Ronald Reagan’s War on Crime as the driver for today’s current levels of incarceration. A review in The National Book Review it is suggested that Hinton argues that President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society policies— which aimed at improving conditions for the most impoverished Americans — laid the foundation for mass incarceration and its attendant racial injustices. Reagan’s policies, she says, were merely “the fulfillment of federal crime control priorities that stemmed initially from one of the most idealistic enterprises in American history during the era of civil rights.”
This may be a surprising claim, but it is not a unique one: there are a growing number of academics today who are blaming liberals for creating mass incarceration and for the sizable racial disparities that exist in the justice system. Naomi Murakawa, political scientist and associate professor of African American studies at Princeton, made this argument in her recent book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. Murakawa points to federal legislation written by liberals to reduce discretion in sentencing and parole. The liberals’ goal was to avoid racially disparate punishment — judges, they argued, generally used their discretion in ways that hurt racial minorities. Time has shown, however, that reducing judicial discretion only resulted in more racial disparities, as African-Americans ended up spending more time in prison as a result.
University of Pennsylvania professor of political science Marie Gottschalk, made a similar case in her 2015 book Caught: The Prison State and the Lockdown of American Politics. Gottshalk contends that African-American advocacy groups have not always led the way in criminal justice reform and have in fact, at various points in history, supported measures that created more punitive criminal justice policies that have harmed African-Americans. She notes that the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus supported the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, a law that notoriously, and controversially, punished crack cocaine use (a crime African-Americans are more likely to be convicted of) 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine use (which skews more white).
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