Race to Incarcerate

Race to Incarcerate

A tremendously disturbing and important book. . . . The questions that it poses call for answers that too few of those in power have been brave enough to give.

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In recent years, Mauer, the assistant director of the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., has raised one of the few voices in the media decrying the explosive increase in the U.S. prison population, and especially the high percentages of incarcerated young black men. In this sober, nuanced analysis, he assesses how we have come to lock up offenders "at a rate 6 to 10 times that of most comparable countries"Aa rate that represents a 500% increase since 1972. Meanwhile, "about the best that can be said is that crime rates in some categories are no worse than they were when only one sixth as many inmates filled the nation's prisons." The major culprits for the expanded rolls, he contends, are mandatory sentencing statues and the "war on drugs" that began in the early '80s. Yet the evidence is too murky to prove that increased incarceration leads to a lowered crime rate, Mauer argues. With some crimes, notably drug peddling, offenders are often "replaced" on the streets, since "a thriving market exists with the potential for lucrative profits." His policy solutionsAjobs, educationAmight be dismissed as "hopelessly liberal," he acknowledges, but they're what work for the middle class; while they may not fully address the complexities of the underclass, there is evidence that they help. He also argues for increased drug treatment. Pointing out some potent unintended consequences of overcrowded prisons, Mauer cites displaced criminal justice resources, significant African-American disenfranchisement and family disruption (including increased sexual bargaining power for unimprisoned black men, and thus more illegitimacy).


A meticulously researched rejoinder to the war on crime.'' The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that promotes criminal justice reform, has monitored a literal explosion since 1973 in both incarceration rates and sentencing severity, ironically as real crime rates fluctuated and declined. Assistant director Mauer, a former consultant to the National Institute of Corrections, galvanizes the reader with both detail and directness as he examines closely how this Kafkaesque state of American justice developed and its untenable implications for our future. Mauer explicitly concerns himself with the curious intersections of race and class within this situation, examining the role of social unrest in the 1960s and other factors in conflating various crime in the streets scares, which faded as repressive measures directed largely against urban minorities remained, and the ultimately thwarted incarceration reform movement of the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, a good portion of his narrative concerns the war on drugs (as in one aptly titled chapter, Crime as Politics). Mauer demonstrates the labyrinthine methodology by which antidrug hysteria conceals both a means of underclass social control (particularly in the wake of post-1973 mandatory minimum laws) and the constant inflation of corrections and law enforcement spending. Mauers exposure of the deep race-based inequities in the prosecution of this war is upsetting and powerful; yet arguably the book is hobbled here by its rather dry and exhaustive approach, which could prove anathema to the readers who most need to consider the injustice and civil rights erosion which they tacitly support. (The books array of sophisticated charts, graphs, and footnotes provide a dizzying counterpoint to Mauers coolly deliberative prose.) Additionally, Mauer discusses the unintended consequences of maximum incarceration, such as the diversion of law enforcement resources and the disenfranchisement of minority populations through loss of voting rights; he concludes by offering possible new frameworks for thought and modulation within a seemingly intractable problem. Mauer provides a sobering, crucial voice amid the obfuscatory, insensate tough-on-crime din.


Dozens of writers, reformists and activists have already narrated the story of America's harrowing prison epidemic spread wide by the politics of corporate greed and fueled daily by scapegoating the poor and vulnerable. With nearly twenty years experience in public policy development, criminal justice reform, and promoting alternatives to confinement, now comes Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project, a national organization based in Washington, D.C. which advocates for substantial changes in our ways of punishing criminal behavior.

Race To Incarcerate is the best book I have read on the subject because it provides a comprehensive analysis of the subtleties in America's preoccupation with incarceration. Blowing aside official propaganda, Mr. Mauer confidently removes the facade of deception and meticulously shows how America has gone from a prison population of almost 200,000 in 1972 to nearly two million in 1999.

This book unveils political opportunism. Recognize it when you see it. It entails expediency seizing an opportunity at the expense of truth, justice, principles or morality. Numerous illustrations are available; however, for the sake of space, the few which follow may illustrate the dilemma we face.

USA Today reported (Feb. 17, 1999) more than 1000 crime bills were introduced in the last Congress because law-makers didn't want to appear "soft on crime." Between 1991 and 1998 gun lobbyists spent $9 million to influence federal elections, with 74% going to Republicans.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that gun-lobby contributions to Senators voting against mandatory background checks at gun shows averaged $10,500; while those who supported the checks received $300.

Lastly, Mr. Mauer notes that during the 1992 New Hampshire Primary candidate Clinton flew home to Arkansas to oversee the execution of a mentally impaired black man who had so little conception of what was about to happen to him that he asked that dessert from his last meal be saved for him until the morning.

Following the execution Clinton was quoted as stating, "I can be nicked on a lot, but no one can say I'm 'soft on crime'." Is there a more ghoulish form of opportunism than gathering in votes by supporting state murder of the sick and wounded?

The most startling, important aspect of this book are the overtones echoing the theme characterized as the "Dumbing-Down of America." This concept postulates that as a result of the controlling educational system, compliant media and repressive socialization process, Americans have been conditioned over generations into silence, apathy and ignorance of public matters over which our elected offcials preside.

This "Dumbing-Down" process has produced unchecked authority in government. Officials may govern with impunity and immunity because "We The People" lack the comprehension, discernment, analytical skills and political experience which enables ordinary people to challenge a tyrannical government.

Race To Incarcerate spawns many probing questions which free-thinking people should ask themselves. Questions such as: "What are the yardsticks by which the taxpayer measures or validates leadership or political representation? What are the criteria by which we must judge the veracity or goodness of sound public policy?" In his closing thoughts Mr. Mauer offers this reflection: "A healthy society should do all it can to provide healing to those who have been harmed by crime while providing decent conditions to those who are imprisoned, the vast majority of whom will return to our communities some day."

In the race to incarcerate, under the guise of code words such as "tough on crime," "zero tolerance," "truth in sentencing," the poor people have been targeted as the new industrial commodity for the 21st Century. Granted, today it is us; tomorrow, it may be you.

Will you help now to stop the senseless race to incarcerate, or will you wait until they come for you or someone you love?

UP! You sleeping giants, we can accomplish whatever we WILL!


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