Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

Posts Tagged ‘robert perkinson

James Forman on the Limitations of the Jim Crow Analogy

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In the current issue of the Boston Review, Georgetown Law professor James Forman has some interesting thoughts on two of last year’s most significant books on mass incarceration — Robert Perkinson’s Texas Tough and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Here’s Forman on the limitations of Alexander’s account:

This account of the origins of mass incarceration reinforces the Jim Crow analogy by tracing a direct line from a profound social ill (mass imprisonment) to a well-known enemy (racist voters and politicians who pander to them). But the account is incomplete. Something else was going on in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s: violent crime shot up dramatically just before the beginning of the prison boom. Homicide rates doubled between 1965 and 1975, and robbery rates tripled.

The increase in crime helped to fuel demands for more punitive policies. In The Politics of Imprisonment, Vanessa Barker describes how black activists in Harlem fought for what would become the notorious Rockefeller drug laws. Harlem residents were outraged by rising crime rates in their neighborhoods and sought increased police presence and stiffer penalties. …

Those who call attention to the harm caused by our current criminal-justice policies must also be ruthlessly honest about the harm caused by crime. This, too, is a matter of racial justice: victims of crime—especially violent crime—are disproportionately poor, young, and black or brown. It is also a strategic imperative. Tough-on-crime advocates are not going to stop talking about violent offenders and the need to protect communities from them. If reformers shy away from the topic, their chances of building a broad movement for change will suffer.

The review is well worth reading in full. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that the carceral state was already on its way to expansion even before homicide rates shot up in the late 1960s. It’s worth wondering whether black leaders responded to violence in their communities in the late 1960s and early 1970s by calling for more incarceration at least in part because that was a solution that the nation, dating back to the Johnson years, had already indicated that it would support; whereas more comprehensive social programs such as those envisioned by Johnson’s War on Poverty were already falling out of favor.

New Book: Texas Tough

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In a recent Friday Roundup, I noted a few early reviews of Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (Metropolitan Books, 2010), by University of Hawaii professor Robert Perkinson. This past weekend, the book was favorably reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. Writes reviewer Daniel Bergner:

[T]here isn’t much that is subtle about Perkinson’s writing, and perhaps there shouldn’t be. Not only do we incarcerate at some six times the rate that Britain does, to take one example, or around seven times the rate of Canada, but, Perkinson relates, African-Americans are seven times as likely to be locked up as whites, and ­“African-American men today go to prison at twice the rate they go to college.” … Since the triumphs of the civil rights movement, the disparity between black and white incarceration rates has almost doubled. In the early 21st century, the country, Perkinson suggests, has in a sense become the late-19th-century South.

Perkinson was recently interviewed by the Boston Globe:

[The American prison industry is] on a scale unlike anything attempted by a democratic government in human history. There have been larger prison experiments — the Soviet gulag, for instance — but only in totalitarian states. The total prison population in the US is about 2.4 million; if you count those on probation and parole, it rises to almost 8 million. We have chosen to lock up more people for longer than any other country in the world. And those incarcerated are not just disproportionately African-American and Latino but increasingly so. In that sense, the US criminal justice system has become not more, but less equal over the last 40 years.

I look forward to reading and perhaps blogging further about Texas Tough. Since much of the historical scholarship on American prisons has traditionally focused on nineteenth-century penitentiaries in the 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 Western states, since it’s those developments that more proximately explain our current rates of mass incarceration and more directly inform contemporary views on crime and punishment.

Written by sara

March 29, 2010 at 11:33 am

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