The explosive rise in the U.S. incarceration rate in the second half of the twentieth century, and the racial transformation of the prison population from mostly white at mid-century to sixty-five percent black and Latino in the present day, is a trend that cannot easily be ignored.
Princeton’s Naomi Murakawa begins her provocative new book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America with a jarring statistic: “One black man in the White House; one million black men in the Big House.” Her premise is even more jarring. Rather than blame postwar tough-on-crime conservatives for the incarceration epidemic, she documents a case that lays our current prison problems at the doors of the Truman, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton administrations.
If there is one shortcoming with Murakawa’s analysis, it is that it focuses on the federal prison system. What this book begs for is a companion volume – or, indeed, library – to document what happened at the state prison and local jail systems in America.
Nonetheless, this book should be a clarion for us to examine the Incarceration Nation issue as a bipartisan matter. I have little stomach for identity politics as it exists in America today, but victimhood fatigue or ideological differences must neither blind us to uncomfortable facts, nor deter us from the search for answers.
We have too many people in prison, yet we cannot afford to retain dangerous people on our streets or return them there once paroled. The time has come to find a better path that addresses these two challenges than simply more bars, more walls, and more guards.