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Basil Wilson


Carib News


In his remaining tenure as President of the United States, President Obama has indicated his willingness to make changes in the United States’ criminal justice system.  That is a gargantuan undertaking that will require the next President to continue whatever progress is made in the remainder of the Obama Presidency.

There has been something of an ideological convergence bringing together the political forces of the right and the left to make changes to mandatory minimum sentences as the prison population has ballooned to 1.4 million.  When probation, parole and people in the jail system are included, those under some form of custody the numbers climb up to the astonishing figure of nigh seven million.

The United States has in prison 750 to every 100,000, the highest in the world.  The United States rate of incarceration exceeds totalitarian countries like China, authoritarian countries like Russia and post-genocidal countries like Rwanda.

The cost of imprisoning so many is the principal reason for the ideological convergence.  Increasing percentages of the Department of Justice and state budgets are being gobbled up with paying for the cost of mass incarceration.  The present convergence is not necessarily embracing all the major political figures and the changes will create opportunities for demagogues especially if there is any increase in violent crime.  An example of this kind of demagoguery was evident in the recent utterances of the Governor of New Jersey who attacked President Obama for not supporting the police and supporting lawlessness.  Christie, whose presidential campaign has stalled, was attempting to increase his profile by attacking the group “Black Lives Matter”.  This kind of political desperation must be soundly condemned.

Reconstructing the criminal justice system requires understanding and explaining what led to the phenomenon of mass incarceration.  At the beginning of the 1970s, the prison population was slightly above 200,000 and in the ensuing decades increased exponentially to 1.4 million.  As a result of the “get tough on crime” legislation like California’s three strikes and you are out or the Rockefeller laws in 1973 vis-à-vis drugs where first offenders received severe sentences, we entered the new era of mass incarceration.

Liberal and Conservatives were determined to prove to the electorate who was tougher on crime.  The 1994 Violent Crime Control Act personified the mood of the state legislatures and the United States Congress.  The mandatory minimum sentences were passed in this legislation and states which cooperated with the federal government’s draconian disposition were rewarded with millions of dollars to build more and more prisons.

The critical question is what occurred in the society from the 1960s to the early 1990s when we witnessed a spiraling of violent crime?  Prior to that era, for most of the twentieth century, crime was flat.  A lot of societal changes occurred during the 1960s and the 1970s.  There was the civil rights movement that led to the end of dejure segregation and the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  The design to make the society more democratic was followed by a white backlash largely concentrated in the post-bellum south even though the backlash movement surfaced in other regions of the country.

The 1970s is when the de-industrialization of the inner cities erupted in full force.  Concomitantly, there was the rise in drug markets and the weakening of the nuclear family.  The Great Society programs that occurred during the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson focused on the elderly with Medicare and the War on Poverty.  Some Improvement in the living standards of the elderly took hold and there was progression reducing the ranks of the Americans living below the poverty line. But perhaps most telling of that era was the de-industrialization phase of American capitalism.

The governmental process like the criminal justice system is quite complex.  Programs like the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) passed during the New Deal were aimed at improving the lives of children, not the lives of black men.  In fact, the presence of the male in the household made the family ineligible for AFDC.

Black communities in particular were affected by more men looking for work than there was work available.  The American economy was undergoing a transformation but the federal government was oblivious to how these economic changes were having a profound impact on society and crime.  Yet the crime epidemic ended suddenly.  Why?

The decline in violent crime that began in the 1990s caught most criminologists off guard.  The prison population was still spiraling out of control even though violent crime was receding.  As we grapple with the need to reconstruct the criminal justice system, decision-makers and criminologists need to develop a clearer understanding of what gave rise to the rising crime rates in the post-1960s period and what led to the decline that began in the 1990s.  In complex societies, there is never one causative variable that explains societal changes. It is usually a conjuncture of variables that led to these dramatic shifts in crime but in my estimation, it is the simmering chronic surplus labor problem particularly in the black community that led to the crime epidemic that began in the 1970s.

Not much in American politics is evidence based.  There is no shortage of aspiring leaders desperate to run with pie-in-the-sky proposals.  New York City experienced the worst of an urban decay falling apart in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s yet led the nation in the precipitous decline in violent crime the mid-1990s.  New York City, more so than upstate, has been innovative in dealing with its criminal justice system.  New York State’s prison population has been decreasing, from 71,000 in 2000 to 56,000 in January, 2014.  The alternative to prison programs has been working, and the jail population, the people on parole and probation, have declined significantly.  When we made funds available for the building of prisons, no funds were made available to study the causes of the crime epidemic that began in the 1970s.  President Obama before he leaves office can make funds available for criminologists to study the reasons why violent crime at this juncture has been declining.


Dr. Basil Wilson