The unsettling story of how this came to be actually begins in 1865, when the abolition of slavery led to bitter constitutional battles over who would and would not be included in our polity. To fully understand it, though, we must look more closely than we yet have at the year 1965, a century later—a moment when, on the one hand, politicians were pressured into opening the franchise by passing the most comprehensive Voting Rights Act to date, but on the other hand, were also beginning a devastatingly ambitious War on Crime.
From Voting Rights to the War on Crime
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the federal government a number of meaningful tools with which it could monitor state elections and make sure that states with a particularly grim history of discriminatory voting practices would make no voting policy without its approval. The act had been intended to combat the intimidation and legal maneuvers—such as passage of poll taxes, literacy requirements, and so-called “Grandfather clauses”— that had left only 5 percent of black Americans, by the 1940s, able to vote, despite passage of the 14th and 15th amendments after the Civil War.
But the very same year that Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he also signed another Act into law: the Law Enforcement Administration Act (LEAA), a piece of legislation that, well before crime rates across America hit record highs, created the bureaucracy and provided the funding that would enable a historically and internationally unparalleled war on crime.
So, at the very same moment that the American Civil Rights Movement had succeeded in newly empowering African Americans in the political sphere by securing passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, America’s white politicians decided to begin a massive new war on crime that would eventually undercut myriad gains of the Civil Rights Movement—particularly those promised by the Voting Rights Act itself.
From the War on Crime to Mass Incarceration
Thanks to LEAA and America’s post-1965 commitment to the War on Crime, and more specifically, thanks to the dramatic escalation of policing in cities across the nation as well as the legal changes wrought by an ever-intensifying War on Drugs, between 1970 and 2010 more people ended up in prison in this country than anywhere else in the world. At no other point in this nation’s recorded past had the economic, social, and political institutions of a country become so bound up with the practice of punishment.
By the year 2007, 1 in every 31 U.S. residents lived under some form of correctional supervision. By 2010, more than 7.3 million Americans had become entangled in the criminal justice system and 2 million of them were actually locked up in state and federal prisons. By 2011, 39,709 people in Louisiana alone were living behind bars and 71,579 were either in jail, on probation, or on parole. And this was by no means a “southern” phenomenon. In Pennsylvania, 51,638 people were actually locked behind bars in 2011 and a full 346,268 lived under some form of correctional control by that year.