III. End the War on Crime

The comparison with the wartime internment of Japanese Americans also highlights the war context of mass incarceration. Unlike Jim Crow, which constituted the long-term settlement of post-Civil War irregular conflict in South, mass incarceration belongs to a period of self-conscious wartime footing, in which racial patterns of social control were rationalized and legitimized as necessary, if regrettable, measures necessitated by an extreme and unacceptable threat associated racially with the population being subjected to mass internment, incarceration, or supervision. Although the “war on crime” was never declared by Congress, as our more recent “war on terrorism” was, numerous presidents and congresses, as well as state governments, have affirmed it.

Wars inevitably racialize the populations they define. In the era of the war on crime, police have been sent into neighborhoods to repress crime, and correctional officers have been invited to consider themselves police on the toughest beat of all. But if crime is a war, then the enemy constitutes all the young men of fighting age in the territory under threat. If crime is a war, then victory comes from making that territory off-limits to those defined demographically as the enemy. These are not metaphors, but the very terms in which New York Police Department's Stop and Frisk campaign was carried out, and the very way in which California's Supermax Pelican Bay prison was built.

The growing outrage at police and correctional forces for preemptive violence based on racial profiling and prejudice or bias (implicit or even explicit) is a long time coming, but improvement will take more than better training and monitoring, under court orders or otherwise; it will take a political decision to end the war on crime. President Obama recently gave a speech calling for a fundamental change in the way the country addressed terrorism. He was not declaring the threat over, but recognizing the need to back away from a war footing and the messages that sent to both government agents and citizens alike. The president and other political leaders need to make similar statements about crime. This should go along with acknowledgment that the war on crime has failed to provide real security to many communities in the United States, and that renewed efforts to prevent young people from engaging in deadly violence will go along with an end to collective punishment and harassment of youth in high-crime neighborhoods.