The following is an excerpt from Elizabeth Hinton’s From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime. Elizabeth is Assistant Professor in the Department History and the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Hinton’s research focuses on the persistence of poverty and racial inequality in the 20th century United States. If you’d like to explore the broader historical context of mass incarceration, you may watch After Attica: Criminal Justice and Mass Incarceration on our YouTube channel.
In the century between the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 and Johnson’s call for the War on Crime, a total of 184,901 Americans entered state and federal prisons. During just the two decades between the passage of the Law Enforcement Assistance Act and the launch of Reagan’s War on Drugs, the country added 251,107 citizens to the prison system. The American carceral state has continued its rapid growth ever since, so that today 2.2 million citizens are behind bars—representing a 943 percent increase over the past half century. Home to the largest prison system on the planet, with a rate of incarceration that is five to ten times higher than that of comparable nations, the United States represents 5 percent of the world’s population but holds 25 percent of its prisoners. This prison system costs taxpayers $80 billion annually, and has become such a paramount component of domestic social policy that states like California and Michigan spend more money on imprisoning young people than on educating them.
The rise of mass incarceration over the past fifty years has disrupted millions of American families, nearly all of whom are low-income. However, policymakers’ decision to expand the punitive arm of the state has had especially severe consequences for racially marginalized Americans. Black Americans and Latinos together constitute 59 percent of the nation’s prisoners, even though they make up roughly a quarter of the entire U.S. population.8 Although in recent decades Latino Americans have entered the nation’s carceral institutions in greater numbers, and they are disproportionately ensnared in the growing system of immigration detention, African Americans have in the long term been hit the hardest by the punitive transformation of domestic policy.
Regardless of socioeconomic status, African Americans are more likely to serve prison or jail time than any other racial group in the United States. Odds are 50–50 that young black urban males are in jail, in a cell in one of the 1,821 state and federal prisons across the United States, or on probation or parole. And assuming punitive programs continue in their present form, African Americans born after 1965 and lacking a high school diploma are more likely to eventually go to prison than not.
Arguably the most important question facing American society today is why, in the land of the free, one in thirty-one people is under some form of penal control. Scholars, activists, policymakers, and advocates have come up with a range of answers since the outset of the War on Crime. The first and most forceful explanation reiterates the rationale that Johnson and other federal policymakers offered at the time: rising crime rates in the 1960s and 1970s demanded that the federal government intervene in what had been a state and local matter for the previous two centuries of American history. As Senator Strom Thurmond put it in 1967: “No country has ever incurred as much crime as America is enduring today.” But contrary to the sensationalized media coverage and fear-mongering political rhetoric at the time, when Johnson began the national law enforcement intervention, violent crime had in fact steadily declined after peaking in the interwar period, and crime levels had remained relatively stable since the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. When crime began to rise sharply in urban centers, it rose as federal policymakers invested in state and local law enforcement programs that aimed to modernize police departments. Many previously hidden crimes suddenly came to light as reported crime rates determined the extent of national crime control funding. For example, the number of recorded robberies and burglaries in New York City skyrocketed from a combined total of 48,000 in 1965 to 143,000 the following year. This threefold increase resulted not from an actual upsurge in crime, but from the crime reporting reforms Mayor John Lindsay implemented when he took office in 1966. The development of crime statistics, a new technology of knowledge production, alongside early federal law enforcement measures, meant that rising crime rates in New York City and elsewhere correlated directly to rising crime reporting, a fact that skewed perceptions of violence.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) provided a national portrait of these distorted figures in its Uniform Crime Rate, which has stood as the nation’s primary measurement of crime since 1930 despite its known inaccuracies. One year after the FBI began collecting these statistics, a report warned of “the danger of having law enforcement agencies responsible for collecting and disseminating crime data because of their vested interests.” At the outset of the crime war in the 1960s, congressional representatives raised questions about the utility of the FBI data and the extensive and systematized manipulation of the national crime rate in the past. Yet the very problem—impossibility, even—of precisely measuring crime ultimately served as a rationale for providing additional criminal justice resources. Moreover, leading social scientists have been unable to establish a strong correlation between incarceration and crime rates, debunking the idea that the threat of imprisonment serves as a powerful crime deterrent. When Reagan called the War on Drugs and prison populations went on to soar, the crime rate had decreased from its high levels in the mid-1970s. Politicians and officials have explained mass incarceration as a seemingly natural policy response to a surge in criminality and violence among specific sects of the citizenry, but scholars have pointed to the ways in which mass incarceration and the justice disparities within it expressed changes in law, budgetary allocations for crime control, and punitive practices at all levels of government.
A common account relies on party politics to explain why Johnson and other national representatives pursued this punitive domestic policy path. The story usually begins with the “law and order” rhetoric Barry Goldwater introduced into political discourse during the 1964 presidential campaign that Nixon went on to appropriate in the 1968 contest. The wars on crime and drugs then appear as shrewd electoral strategies developed in reaction to the upheavals of the 1960s and the uncertainties of the 1970s that carried over into the 1980s. From Nixon’s “Silent Majority” to the Reagan Democrats, Republican policymakers employed the racially coded politics of crime control to appeal to disenchanted white voters.12
Electoral ambitions and special interests certainly help explain the federal government’s commitment to enlarging the carceral state beginning in the mid-1960s, but Republican Party strategy is not a satisfactory answer alone. Without question, the rightward turn of the American political system played a role in the appearance of anticrime legislation. Segregationists in Congress such as John McClellan, Sam Ervin, and Thurmond emerged as some of the most outspoken crime control proponents in the early stages of the federal government’s law enforcement program even as they opposed other social programs. Yet the Republican coalition that emerged in the postwar period did not engineer the War on Crime and the rise of the carceral state. As the product of one of the most ambitious liberal welfare programs in American history, the rise of punitive federal policy over the last fifty years is a thoroughly bipartisan story. Built by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil rights movement, over time, the carceral state and the network of programs it encompassed came to dominate government responses to American inequality. Indeed, crime control may be the domestic policy issue in the late twentieth century where conservative and liberal interests most thoroughly intertwined.
In addition to focusing too narrowly on the tactical dimensions of crime control politics, scholars have underestimated the federal government’s active role in revolutionizing American law enforcement before the 1980s. Although state and municipal governments retained control over their respective criminal justice systems, the creation of the LEAA made national policymakers meaningful partners in law enforcement and criminal justice at all levels. Groundbreaking studies have recently emphasized the distinctive role of states in supporting the proliferation of crime control and punitive programs, examining the actions of state legislatures and the networks of state officials and local law enforcement authorities that formed an effective criminal justice lobby beginning in the 1970s.14 The focus on state-level factors illuminated developments that precipitated mass incarceration across the country, but it has also diverted attention from the profound national dimensions of crime control, which have yet to be fully examined. After all, in the absence of the policing, juridical, and penal programs federal policymakers imposed, it is entirely possible that state and local governments would have decided to invest in an entirely different set of priorities. At a time when the harms of mass incarceration are increasingly recognized by policy- makers, political candidates, and growing sectors of the public, national action is needed once again if we are to move toward solutions.
Most recently, political scientists and historians have begun to highlight the black politicians, community leaders, and clergymen who responded to disorder by demanding tougher crime control measures in urban communities. Their work has revealed new dimensions of the politics of crime control and the diversity of opinion within African American communities. In these depictions, however, the range of ways black activists and leaders responded to policing, crime, and drug abuse often gets obscured. During the 1960s and 1970s in particular, the version of the War on Crime that many black activists imagined involved community control, oversight, and inclusion in the development and implementation of urban law enforcement programs. The version of crime control that federal, state, and local authorities imposed was far different. The emergence of black and Latino activist groups that called for armed self-defense, from the Black Panthers to the Revolutionary Action Movement to the Young Lords, can be seen as a response to the expansion of police and surveillance in targeted low-income urban communities after 1965. These groups drew upon a long tradition of direct-action mobilization against police brutality and aggressive law enforcement that took on different approaches over the course of the 1970s and that continues to this day.
By the 1980s, when the social service centers that had been established during the War on Poverty were nowhere to be found in some of the most vulnerable and isolated neighborhoods in American cities, residents had no one else to call but the police and law enforcement authorities when their children engaged in criminal activity, and when friends and family members robbed them in order to fuel a drug habit. For those neighborhoods lacking comprehensive rehabilitative or social welfare programs, when law enforcement and criminal justice institutions became the last public agencies standing, the police were the service that could be summoned when help was needed. Some African Americans made the conscious decision not to involve law enforcement and the criminal justice system in their lives and the lives of their neighbors—what today is referred to as the “stop snitching” movement. And according to polling data, the majority of African Americans remain suspicious of law enforcement and cynical about the criminal justice system.
Police officers have always served as the first line of contact between citizens and the justice system, yet most existing accounts of mass incarceration leave out the law enforcement channels that facilitate the entry of citizens into prisons. This omission often hides the full depths of the carceral state’s racist dimensions. We cannot fully account for how mass incarceration happened or why black and Latino citizens are overrepresented in the nation’s penal system without examining the transformation of American policing in the last fifty years. In her groundbreaking The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander traced the dynamics between federal and state priorities, police departments, and black communities that created severe racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Alexander brought much-needed attention to the policing practices that emerged during the War on Drugs and the way federal policies assigned urban police forces to the task of searching for and apprehending as many suspects as possible.
Although Alexander masterfully synthesized two decades of political science and sociological research focusing on connections between mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, fully accounting for this remarkable transformation in late twentieth-century domestic policy requires beginning much earlier. The federal government sought to control the flow and use of narcotics well before the Safe Streets Act of 1968, establishing the Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics to focus on regulating drugs in the 1930s, an approach that became more punitive during the War on Crime in 1973, when the Nixon administration created the Drug Enforcement Agency. It also requires looking beyond drug enforcement policies alone. The records of the LEAA, internal memoranda, previously confidential reports, and public speeches make clear that the concern Nixon and other federal policymakers shared about drugs was very much rooted in their fears about crime in general. Narcotics enforcement had been a federal responsibility since the early twentieth century, and the Nixon and Reagan administrations launched antidrug campaigns partly as a strategy to generate a larger sphere of influence for the national government in low-income urban communities.
The War on Drugs should be considered one component of a much larger set of domestic anticrime policies that focused primarily on black youth and their families but have increasingly come to ensnare millions of Americans regardless of their race. Before the 1980s, national law enforcement programs introduced various forms of surveillance into social welfare programs, labeled entire groups of Americans as likely criminals and targeted them with undercover and decoy squads, ran sting operations that created underground economies, and combated gangs with militarized police forces and severe sentencing guidelines. Together these practices helped to fuel the phenomenon of mass incarceration and to bring the nation to a fiscal and moral crossroads.