This was in response to an editorial in the Florida-Times Union on the "prison boom".
The Times-Union should be commended for drawing attention and raising awareness about mass incarceration in the United States. It is a national disgrace that this country has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and has used the criminal justice system as the institution to manage the failures of our political-economy.
In explaining the post-1980s spike in the rate of incarceration, however, the editorial leaves out an important factor that correlated directly with this penal explosion -- the rise of a political-economic model and philosophy known as neoliberalism. The United States instituted neoliberalism in response to the economic crisis of the 1970s. A fundamental premise of neoliberalism is that any policy that privileges private corporate interests – i.e. creates a favorable business climate -- will advance the common good.
This has involved lower taxes on the rich, less government intervention, the deregulation of business, weakening of labor unions, greater freedom of movement for capital investment, and fewer social welfare protections. Together these policies would presumably unshackle the free market economy, generate economic growth, and “lift all boats” through “trickle-down” economics. Despite the empirical counter evidence of the past thirty years – slower growth, increasing inequality, stagnant wages -- this seductive neoliberal ideology remains the dominant economic paradigm for American capitalism, promoted by both political parties.
But neoliberalism was effective at restructuring the economy and the workplace. Manufacturing production and jobs shifted to low wage locations abroad, job insecurity increased through outsourcing and downsizing. Inevitably, this form of capitalism, with weak protections for workers and the poor, would inevitably (though many argued only temporarily) increase economic hardship and leave a significant portion of the population marginalized, un- and underemployed, living in or on the edge of poverty.
The philosophical underpinnings of neoliberalism -- free markets and individual responsibility – discouraged any expanding collective obligation or government role to cushion the blow for those most negatively impacted. Economic survival strategies for this marginalized population ranged from the formal to the informal, from the licit to the illicit.
Because this state of affairs could pose a potential threat to social order, new methods of social control were required. While business was being deregulated, the economically marginalized were being hyper-regulated, and incarcerated in record numbers, through the institutionalization of new drug and vagrancy laws, and the surveillance and monitoring of poor communities and minority populations by local police forces. As the sociologist Loic Wancquant put it, the”safety-net was replaced with the dragnet” and “welfare with prison-fare”. This emerging trend was captured with new social science concepts – e.g. “the criminalization of poverty”; and book titles – e.g. “Punishing the Poor”.
One can even link these long-term developments to the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island. It is significant that Eric Garner’s offense, before being choked to death by the police, was the seemingly entrepreneurial activity of selling untaxed cigarettes on the street corner. It is ironic that this petty offense would generate a concern with the rule of law in a city where the financial sector’s massive criminal violations, which blew up the entire global economy, have been met without a single banking executive being jailed or prosecuted. But this is the pattern -- deregulated financial markets for the rich, police surveillance and harassment for the poor.
The Times-Union editorial outlines some reasonable solutions to the unsustainable practice of mass incarceration. Most obviously, we should find alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders of victimless crimes. The other recommendations -- such as helping “people become productive members of society” through “schooling, drug rehabilitation, mental health treatment” -- while hard to argue against, will have serious limitations if we do not address the ultimate source of the problem. That is, an economic system that is currently incapable of generating a sufficient number of jobs where they are needed at a living wage (even for those with college degrees), and a neoliberal ideology that leaves no role for government to remedy these shortcomings.
Edited version published here in the Times-Union.