America Needs a Third Reconstruction

The problem of mass incarceration is a problem of high inequality.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Ta-Nehisi Coates mournfully excavates how the carceral state is deeply entangled in the racial DNA of the United States, and convincingly demonstrates that, for all the talk of a Kumbaya moment in penal reform between the left and the right, the carceral state remains largely intact with barely a nick.

In identifying how the carceral state is deeply entangled in the racial, political, social, and economic fabric of the U.S., Coates takes his readers to the edge of dystopian despair. But Americans need to be careful about not stepping into the abyss: the idea that ending mass incarceration must be predicated on tackling the root causes of crimes such as unemployment, poverty, and unconscionable levels of social and economic inequality stratified by race and ethnicity.

Four decades ago, the U.S. had many similar structural problems found today, but it did not have such an expansive penal system. The country has since embarked on a war on drugs and a broader war on crime fueled by penal policies unprecedented in modern U.S. history, and unheard of or disdained in most other countries. Experts on crime and punishment now generally agree that changes in public policies—not dramatic changes in criminal behavior—propelled the decades-long prison boom in the United States. In short, it was about the time, not the crime.

The focus on structural problems, however, overshadows the numerous people that are serving time for nonviolent offenses, like property or petty drug offenses, which would not warrant a sentence in other countries. And many people, like Odell Newton featured in Coates’s article, are serving decades-long and lifelong prison sentences for violent offenses even though they no longer pose serious threats to public safety.

Major decarcerations elsewhere, including Finland in the 1960s and ‘70s, West Germany in the 1980s, and California under Governor Ronald Reagan, were the result of comprehensive changes in penal policy over the short term, not sustained attacks on structural problems and the root causes of crime. The package of penal policies that is currently popular among elite policymakers in the U.S.—a focus on reentry, justice reinvestment, and reducing recidivism—is not up to the task.

The changes needed to slash the country’s incarceration rate are no mystery. While reentry is important, the U.S. cannot focus only on those who are being released. It instead needs to radically cut the number of people who are sent to jail or prison in the first place, and decrease sentence lengths and time served. There should also be comprehensive sentencing and other penal reforms guided by two main principles. First, prison should be reserved primarily for people who pose grave threats to public safety. (The state of Maryland should have released Odell Newton decades ago.) Second, people caught up in the justice system should not be treated as second-class citizens. Their human dignity should not be trampled on—not during apprehension, processing, punishment, or after they have served their sentences.

Major reforms in penal policy and law enforcement are also necessary to begin dismantling the carceral state, even if they don’t resolve the crime crisis that persists in the U.S. While the record drop in crime rates since the 1990s is a major achievement, crime is increasingly distributed in unequal ways, and unacceptably high rates of violent crime persist in certain urban neighborhoods. Ignoring these disquieting facts is like heralding the record highs of the U.S. stock market or gains in U.S. per capita income without considering trends in income distribution or poverty rates.

Since the early 1990s, the homicide victimization rate for African Americans has fallen by more than half, but it remains extraordinarily high. The homicide rate in Chicago’s affluent Hyde Park, home to President Obama, is 3 per 100,000. But the rate in neighboring Washington Park, which is overwhelmingly poor and 98 percent African American, is 78 per 100,000. The homicide victimization rate for blacks is about six times the rate for whites. And despite the crime drop, over 78,000 black males were homicide victims between 2000 and 2010, exceeding the total number of U.S. military casualties during the Vietnam War by about 25 percent.

Violent crime is highly stratified by race and class. But it is extremely hard—perhaps impossible—to disentangle the race effects from the class effects in violence because there are virtually no white neighborhoods as poor as the poorest black neighborhoods, as Coates explains.

If the U.S. is serious about reducing high levels of concentrated violence, then addressing the country’s high levels of inequality and concentrated poverty should become a top priority, not a public-policy afterthought. The U.S. has spent about the equivalent of the Marshall Plan in inflation-adjusted dollars to rebuild Afghanistan. To that end, the time is long overdue to launch a Marshall Plan  for the poorest communities in the U.S.

Penal and social policies have long been two sides of the same coin in governing social marginality. But the former has become the policy of first resort to address the massive economic and social dislocations of the last half-century and the related crime problem. Policing enthusiasts contend that policing strategies based on the proven deterrent effects of swift and certain apprehension and punishment are key to lowering crime rates. They have a point. Preventing crime through a visible police presence is preferable to waiting for someone to break the law and then carting him or her off to prison. But wouldn’t it be better to prevent crime by “improving social conditions or by making people more capable and productive” rather than by “frightening unproductive, desperate, and alienated people with the threat of arrest and incarceration if they break the law?” asks Elliott Currie, a leading criminologist.

In Europe, crime-prevention policies have been closely linked to concerns about social exclusion and urban renewal in poor communities. The countries of the European Union have many more police per capita than the U.S. does, but they also have more expansive welfare states that seek to reduce crime by providing high-quality daycare, good schools, universal health care, and other critical social and economic programs. To date, states and countries that spend more on social welfare tend to have lower incarceration rates. But for decades, conservatives have brazenly dismissed the claim that social-welfare spending reduces crime.

Mass incarceration is an abomination that has disproportionately harmed African Americans. The immediate goal must be to abolish it. The U.S. needs to bring its incarceration rate in line with those of other Western countries and to where it was before the great confinement took off in the 1970s.

Coates draws a straight line from slavery to today’s carceral state. There are important parallels between the abolition of slavery and of mass incarceration. If you were back in 1850, would you choose the  unconditional abolition of slavery? Or would you prefer a phased-in abolition premised on working out the details of how to transition to civil and political equality, and to 40 acres and a mule for former slaves?

The crime crisis is directly related to deeper structural problems in ways that the crisis of the carceral state is not. The only legitimate long-term solution to the crime crisis is another Reconstruction—one that is more durable than the first Reconstruction after the Civil War and the second Reconstruction during the civil-rights movement—even if it takes a long time and requires a major political struggle. The U.S. will finally have to spend what it takes—politically and financially—to rectify the abhorrent consequences for African Americans of centuries of cruel and unequal treatment. In the meantime, there is no compelling public-safety justification for keeping so many people from poor communities locked up.