Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

New Book: Sunbelt Justice

with 3 comments

I am reading a new history of the Arizona prison system entitled Sunbelt Justice: Arizona and the Transformation of American Punishment, by Mona Lynch (Stanford UP, 2009). Like many states, Arizona has experienced exponential growth in its prison population in recent decades. However, Arizona’s penal history is also unique in a few ways. For one thing, Arizona was relatively late both to statehood (1912) and to having a centralized statewide department of corrections (1968), so its penal system offered policymakers something of a clean slate (in contrast to the Eastern and Midwestern states, and even to some extent California, where the penitentiary model and rehabilitative ideal had deeper institutional and philosophical roots). Also, Arizona did not start out as a high-incarceration state. Rather, within 20 years or so, Arizona leapfrogged from a state with “a modest and stable level of imprisonment” into “a national trend-setting leader in delivering harsh punishment” (p. 3). Thus, it offers an interesting case study in how and why the prison population exploded in the late twentieth century.

Lynch’s study merits reading in full for anyone with an interest in penal policy or the tragedy of mass incarceration, and I hope to blog further about her findings (particularly her account of federal court oversight of the Arizona prisons). If you don’t have time to read the whole book, at least check out this detailed review and summary over at the California Corrections Crisis blog. For now, I’d like to highlight two of Lynch’s findings that stood out for me, and that could alter the way that we think about the history of the prison-industrial complex — and how to challenge it.

  • First, the standard narrative of the American penal system begins at some version of a starting point in which prisons were devoted, at least in part, to rehabilitative aims. From there, with the rise of “tough-on-crime” politics, the collapse of liberalism, the crisis of faith in the possibility of rehabilitation, etc. (choose your favorite explanation), beginning in roughly the 1970s, states began to adopt more explicitly punitive, retributive aims in punishment. Not only were prisons stripped of educational and job programs, but states also began sending a wider range of offenders to prison, and for longer — yielding the explosion in prison populations of the past 30 years. Lynch challenges that narrative by pointing out that at least in Arizona, and perhaps in the Sunbelt more generally, there had never been much of a commitment to rehabilitation. Arizona could serve as “a prototype of postrehabilitative penology” in large part because its Department of Corrections “had no ties to the progressive ideals that had shaped other state penal systems” (p. 20).
  • Second, I think there’s a tendency among commentators to assume that although mass incarceration may be a tragedy, it’s a tragedy produced, for better or worse, by policies that the American people support: i.e., that American voters, through their duly elected representatives, have been the ones asking for tougher sentences, no-frills prisons, and a “War on Drugs” that matches (if not exceeds) the folly of Prohibition. So if we want to reform these policies, we first need to convince American voters that they even need reforming. But Lynch’s account suggests that there’s no reason to assume the democratic bona fides of mass incarceration. To be sure, and as Lynch repeatedly emphasizes, Arizona has long been a conservative state whose citizens are generally supportive of harsh treatment of criminal offenders. Yet, Arizona citizens have also historically been concerned with fiscal responsibility (this is, after all, the state of Goldwater), and for many years that concern counterbalanced the punitive impulse. In the 1970s and ’80s, though, legislators altered the calculus. By carefully tracing each step in the expansion of Arizona’s prison system, Lynch writes,

it is … strikingly clear that in the case of Arizona, the push toward mass incarceration was not a bottom-up process. The catalysts for growth were primarily intragovernmental at the state level and did not appear to be prompted by significant populist constituent pressure, by local law enforcement pressure, or even by any careful legislative analysis of the crime problem. … [T]he legislature became more proactive in passing tougher sentencing legislation that increased sentence lengths and decreased autonomy and discretion at both ends of the system. And, for the first time in the state’s history, the legislative majority became more willing to invest significant amounts of money in the penal hardware needed to comply with the newly enacted tough-on-crime legislation.

(pp. 115-16)

Now, it’s somewhat distressing to read that a state’s prison population could explode exponentially, not because of policies that the state’s citizens necessarily wanted, but basically as the consequence of bureaucratic infighting and legislative grandstanding. But as someone who hopes to see this country adopt saner criminal justice policies and turn back the tide of mass incarceration, I also found reason for hope in these two findings. If Lynch is right on both counts, then there’s no need to assume that, in arguing for alternatives to incarceration, saner sentencing policy, renewed attention to rehabilitation and reentry programs, etc., we’re bucking the democratic tide, or going up against 30 years of public opinion in favor of mass incarceration. Rather, it’s possible that mass incarceration has been simply the tragic result of a whole series of contingencies and structural developments, and not a result that the majority of American voters ever intended.

Written by sara

January 21, 2010 at 10:26 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] Sunbelt Justice: a history of prisons and corrections policy in Arizona […]

  2. […] Northeast, I’ve been excited by recent works such as Texas Tough and Sunbelt Justice (which I blogged about a few months ago) that focus on developments in the twentieth century, and in the Southern and […]

  3. I actually remember when the Arizona State Legislature removed references to rehabilitation as a goal of the Criminal Code. Once they did that all bets were off. Mandatory Sentencing has been one of the most ill-conceived, expensive and tragic experiments in public policy in the history of Arizona. The sad thing is that in the face of the undeniable failure of mandatory sentencing many in the Arizona State Legislature still don’t get it.

    Recently, I had the opportunity to conduct Rule of Law training in Central Asia. While conducting a training for judges in Tajikistan – a moderately conservative Muslim country just north of Afghanistan – I was surprised that the judges expressed horror when I described the severity of the criminal code punishments for non-violent crimes in my home State of Arizona. I know of one Arizona inmate who is serving a de facto life sentence for what was essentially a forgery and fraud-related crime that involved no violence whatsoever.

    Nick Hentoff

    October 13, 2011 at 1:50 am


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