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Jonathan Simon and Adrian A. Kragen

Jonathan Simon and Adrian A. Kragen, Ending Mass Incarceration Is a Moral Imperative ,  26(4) Federal Sentencing Reporter 271 (April, 2014) (12 Footnotes)


The movement to name, blame, and shame mass incarceration has arguably achieved considerable success in just the last few years.  The idea of putting more people in prison as a way to bring security and social order to American cities has largely run its course, and prison is now seen for the first time in decades as itself a social problem, at least as serious as crime. Prison populations are dropping (if slowly and mostly under court order). Politicians openly discuss alternatives to prison (although mostly for nonviolent, nonserious, and nonsexual felonies), and the media discusses mass incarceration as at least a failed public policy, if not a looming crisis. Yet the structure of sentencing laws, prosecutorial attitudes, policing practices, and court routines that produce high incarceration rates and overcrowded prisons remains very much intact. How far will the present legal and cultural momentum against mass incarceration take us?

For those of us who believe that mass incarceration has been a profound political and social catastrophe for the United States, there is every reason to be concerned that improving economic conditions, coupled with the continuing traction of crime victimization fear and racialized stereotypes on common sense assumptions and routines in American life, could stall or even reverse progress.  The carceral future could look a lot like the carceral present, perhaps a bit smaller—300 per 100,000 on average rather than 400—still highly racialized, and given the labels of “violent,” “serious,” or “sexual” likely to be laid on those left, ever more securitized and devoid of programs. I call this “mass incarceration lite,” and if we end up accepting something like this, it will be as great a shame as the incompleteness of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Only by establishing that ending mass incarceration is a moral imperative can we assure the sustained progress over political resistance that will be necessary to avoid such an incomplete and unjust resolution.

To that end, this essay highlights five strategies that the anti-mass incarceration movement should adopt to increase the likelihood that the present conjuncture will lead to a sharp turn away from mass incarceration and toward a serious commitment to remediation and restoration.