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From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime

Elizabeth Hinton

(NY Times)

Prison is on our minds. Its tentacles reach far beyond the two million Americans who are incarcerated, extending to their beloved friends and families, to the schools, homes and streets of people who once were, and who will someday be, locked up. In the years following the 2010 publication of Michelle Alexander's best-selling book The New Jim Crow, several scholarly works have emerged that explain the rise and reality of mass incarceration. Like Naomi Murakawa's The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America, Elizabeth Hinton's From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime argues it was not just a conservative backlash to the civil rights movement that led to mass incarceration; it was a ­bipartisan enterprise.

Murakawa, a political scientist, focuses primarily on legislation and policy, whereas Hinton, an urban historian at Harvard, takes us from the policy to its application. Hinton acknowledges the 19th-century roots of what Khalil Gibran Muhammad has called 'the condemnation of blackness,' but she notes that a significant transformation in racial politics took place in the late 20th century: 'The long mobilization of the War on Crime was not a return to an old racial caste system in a new guise - 'A New Jim Crow.' Rather, the effort to control and contain... produced a new and historically distinct phenomenon.'

From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime requires slow and careful reading for anyone seeking to grasp the full implications of this exceedingly well-­researched work. While the introduction and the first chapter take a while to gain momentum, the remainder of the book is vivid with detail and sharp analysis. Stretching beyond the typical scope of an academic text, Hinton's book is more than an argument; it is a revelation.

She describes how, from the administration of John F. Kennedy to that of Ronald Reagan, the executive, Congress and the courts together expanded the architecture of criminalization, driven by assumptions about the cultural inferiority and 'pathology' of African-Americans. The Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961, established by Kennedy's executive order, imagined black youth as being in need of repair rather than justice. Lyndon B. Johnson recast this war on delinquency as a War on Crime. Police were militarized; law and order touted as essential; and black youth labeled 'delinquent' and 'potentially delinquent,' reputedly in need of special surveillance and supervision.

After taking office in 1969, Nixon ushered in a new set of punitive policies. He developed a long-range plan to expand and modernize prisons, and distributed block grants that gave states incentives to expand their apparatuses of punishment. Advocating both longer sentences and a move from a rehabilitative model to a retributive one, Nixon argued for the expansion of prisons on the basis of population growth estimates, specifically projections (later discounted) of a sharp rise in the number of young black Americans. Just as the lawlessness of the Nixon administration reached its height, Nixon pushed for the punishment of black youth. His successor, Gerald Ford, signed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974; juvenile facilities, along with foster and protective care programs, proliferated, while disparities abounded. White youths were treated as troubled, and black youths as criminal. Hinton cites a 1976 study showing that 75 percent of adult inmates in the New Jersey prison system had been in and out of correctional facilities from the age of 12.

She also shows that Jimmy Carter, who campaigned on a promise of equality and opportunity, nevertheless crafted an urban policy that was essentially punitive and discriminatory. Under his authority, housing projects became zones of constant surveillance and police presence. From the 1960s to 1980s, the federal government's failed efforts to reduce crime, which resulted from bad data collection, bad social science and bad police practices, led to an expansion of the carceral apparatus rather than a serious reappraisal. Then came Reagan.

The prison population and its racial disparities exploded as the Reagan administration criminalized drug users and deepened the relationship between the military and the police. His Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 eliminated the federal parole system, reinstated the federal death penalty and initiated the asset forfeiture system, which encouraged corrupt policing by gifting cops with cash and property obtained in police work. This was the era of Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' campaign, and yet, as Hinton points out, the bulk of the $900 million allocated by Congress for drug-abuse programs went to 'helicopters, airplanes and intelligence-­gathering facilities.'

Hinton accounts for the why as well as the how. As Dan Berger does in 'Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era,' she shows that the backlash to black radical movements and urban uprisings produced the turn to mass incarceration. Likewise, she describes how elected officials saw radical black activists as akin to the threat posed by anticolonial efforts around the globe, and treated them accordingly. Her details reveal the truth behind James Baldwin's assertion that 'the Panthers ... became the native Vietcong, the ghetto became the village in which the Vietcong were hidden, and in the ensuing search-and-destroy operations, everyone in the village became suspect.'

Academic 'findings' were often used to justify increased incarceration, militarized policing and prison construction. Hinton's book, leaving no stone unturned, is also an indictment of the scholarly guild. Researchers amassed deeply flawed social science in order to support a law-and-order agenda. Edward Banfield and James Q. Wilson of Harvard advocated divestment from social welfare programs and increased surveillance and punishment of black youth. Marvin Wolfgang, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania, contended his delinquency measurements showed that the crime problem was essentially one of 'nonwhites.' 'In reality,' Hinton writes, 'Wolfgang's six-year research project captured more the extent of police contact with black youth than a ''pattern of criminality.'

Hinton's chapters are chronologically and thematically organized, and in each one she takes the reader from lofty policies to granular analyses of their application. There are moments that will make your skin crawl. She recounts the Stress program - 'Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets' - inaugurated in Detroit in 1971, in which police officers costumed themselves as prospective victims of crimes, provoked confrontations and often used deadly force. In one instance, a group of black deputies playing cards were ambushed by white plainclothes officers. One of the black deputies died, another suffered multiple gunshot wounds. The white officers walked free.

This is history, but the implications for today are striking. Readers will learn how the militarization of the police that we've witnessed in Ferguson and elsewhere had roots in the 1960s. In policy circles, the idea that black youths are deviant and deficient, an idea that shapes education, welfare and police practices today, has been fashionable for more than 50 years. Efforts to make police forces kinder and gentler, and to use technology and surveillance to make them more efficient, have been carried out since the 1970s and tend to exacerbate violence and punishment, regardless of stated intent. A reader cannot help reckoning with the truth that the problem of police brutality and mass incarceration won't be remedied with technology and training. Those of us who believe in the principles of democracy and justice would do well to witness, as detailed in Hinton's pages, the shameful theft of liberty in this so-called land of the free.

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