Social Insecurity: The Transformation of American Criminal Justice, 1965-2000

ANTHONY M. PLATT ( is a member of the Editorial Board of Social Justice and professor of social work, California State University, Sacramento, CA 95819-6090. This article was originally published in Working Papers in Local Governance and Democracy 3 (2000). The author thanks Julie Stewart for her research assistance on this article.
Just from a Christian standpoint, you can't see one of these and not consider that maybe it's not right.
-- Jim Willet, warden of Huntsville prison in Texas, after supervising 40 executions in one year (Rimer, 2000a)
We're Number One!

FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MANY YEARS, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT WAS NOT A CONTESTED issue in the 2000 presidential race. By the end of Clinton's second term, the Democratic and Republican platforms shared the same premises about law and order, and disagreed only on details. Unlike Michael Dukakis in the 1988 campaign, Bill Clinton made sure in 1992 that he would not be labeled a "card-carrying member of the ACLU" or represented as the kind of governor who releases a Willie Horton into a work furlough program. While governor of Arkansas, Clinton approved the death penalty and as a presidential candidate he accused Republicans of being soft on crime. During the 1994 midterm election campaign, President Clinton supported a "three strikes" provision in a federal crime bill (Cole, 1999: 147). George W. Bush arrives in office with a record of presiding over a state with the second largest prison population and almost half the executions carried out in the country in 2000.

The recent presidential election may have been in doubt for several weeks, but as far as criminal justice policies are concerned, it made little difference which party triumphed. By 1992, the traditional liberal agenda on crime -- prevention, community development, rehabilitation, and abolition of the death penalty -- had, like liberalism itself, disappeared from official political discourse, to be replaced by a bipartisan consensus of demagoguery. In 2000, Republicans and Democrats echoed each other's position: Clinton and Gore "fought for and won the biggest anti-drug budgets in history.... They funded new prison cells, and expanded the death penalty for cop killers and terrorists.... But we have just begun to fight the forces of lawlessness and violence," called the Democrats. "We renew our call," the Republicans responded, "for a complete overhaul of the juvenile justice system that will punish juvenile offenders" and for "no-frills prisons" for adults (Democratic National Convention, 2000; Republican National Convention, 2000).

Meanwhile, given the rush to retribution, most people would not know that people's safety is for the most part unrelated to the number of police or severity of punishment; or that most crime is not even reported to the police; or that the overall crime rate has declined over the last 20 years. The drop in the crime rate in the 1990s resulted from a complex interplay of demographic, economic, and social factors. Even mainstream criminologists admit that imprisonment and more punitive sentencing accounted for only five to 25% of the decline in crime (Butterfield, 2000b). According to a recent New York Times survey, 10 of the 12 states without capital punishment have homicide rates below the national average; and during the last 20 years, the homicide rate in states with the death penalty has been 48 to 101% higher than in states without the death penalty (Bonner and Fessenden, 1999: 1). When the law-and-order campaign was at its height in the early 1990s, the rates for murder and rape were high, but about the same as in the early 1970s; other crimes of violence, such as robbery and assault, had declined; and youth violence was a small and decreasing part of serious crime in the United States. 1 Victimization rates in 1999, reports the Department of Justice, are the lowest recorded since the National Crime Victimization Survey's creation in 1973 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999).

Yet, by the early 1990s, a moral panic about crime and lawlessness was in full swing throughout the country, from Puerto Rico, where the National Guard was called upon to police housing projects, to the beaches of southern California, where curfews were imposed to prevent gang violence, and to Florida, where state politicians proposed reducing the age of execution to 14 and fining welfare mothers for their kids' crimes (Navarro, 1994: 6; Rimer, 1994: 1; Rohter, 1994: 10). Legislators at every level of government were in fierce competition to prove their devotion to criminalization and punishment. In 1994, Congress passed a $30.2 billion crime bill that funded 100,000 new police and $8.8 billion in prison construction. Between 1981 and 1999, the budget of the Department of Justice grew ninefold, from $2.35 billion to $21.09 billion. At the local level, budget-strapped city councils and boards of supervisors were hard at work expanding the justice net through legislation that criminalized "aggressive panhandling" and crammed already overcrowded jails with the homeless and chronically unemployed. These policies recall the English Poor Laws that filled workhouses with "sturdy beggars" some 400 years ago.

Variants of "three strikes and you're out" (mandatory life imprisonment for prisoners convicted of a third felony) now operate in more than 24 states (Blomberg and Lucken, 2000: 214-216). California, whose voters overwhelmingly supported a three-strikes referendum in 1994, is currently building a maximum-security, 5,000-bed prison in Delano, the 24th new prison in the state since 1980 (Nieves, 2000b: 12; Parenti, 1999: 227; Cole, 1999: 146-49). To avoid any accusation of being soft on crime, New York and Ohio have reduced recreational programs in prison, while Mississippi became the first state to put convicts back in striped uniforms (Nossiter, 1994: 1).

When it comes to biggest and best, you cannot beat the U.S. criminal justice system -- 14 million arrests annually, and over 1.7 million employed as police, guards, and other functionaries at a total cost to taxpayers of about $74 billion (or about three times as much as the economic relief allotted to 4.5 million families on welfare in 1994). The number of prisoners in local, state, and federal prisons has quadrupled in the past 20 years to over two million, at a cost of about $40 billion a year (Butterfield, 2000b: 16). There are more than 3,500 prisoners stacked up in a waiting pattern on death row, with Texas under Governor Bush leading the nation with 37 executions in 1999 and 40 in 2000, the highest number in one year in any state in the nation's history. By 1993, almost five million people in this country were under some kind of correctional supervision (jail, prison, probation, and parole) and no signs indicate the trend is abating (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000, 1994, 1993; Butterfield, 2000a, 1992: E4; Rothman, 1994: 34-38; Rimer, 2000a: 15). While the United States has five percent of the world's population, it now has 25% of its prisoners (Gonnerman, 2000: 56). According to one prediction, by the year 2006, one out of every 10 Americans will be enmeshed in the criminal justice system. "We are becoming a medium-secure society," suggest Thomas Blomberg and Karol Lucken (2000: 226).

The U.S. has the largest, most complex, most expensive, and most punitive system of justice in the world -- and the most insecurity about crime in the West, with no relief in sight. "Public safety" is an illusion: it is every individual woman, man, and child to his or her own defense. Even the police advise everybody to learn techniques of "target-hardening" and "defensible space" -- organize neighborhood watches, look out for suspicious characters, and, if you are a woman, carry a whistle and mace, take classes in martial arts, and stay off the streets after dark. In other words, take personal responsibility and good luck! How did we arrive at this conjuncture of pervasive institutional security and social insecurity?

Panics and Panaceas

The political preoccupation with crime and justice in the 1990s had little to do with either. With the collapse of liberalism and the Keynesian regulatory state, the old Fordist social pact has been broken, giving rise to more coercive and exclusionary forms of social control. What posed as moral outrage about crime was in fact recognition of the weakening political authority of the state. Some 20 years of structural unemployment and subemployment in the former industrial zones, ruthless cuts in public spending, declining participation in the electoral process, plus sustained policies of malign neglect of the growing racial divide, ripped open the social fabric and created widespread anxieties about personal well-being and security (Wallerstein, 1994: 15).

By the end of the 20th century, the entire U.S. political establishment had followed the lead of the New Right in successfully staking out this terrain of insecurity and couching its repressive measures in a populist moralism, to use Stuart Hall's term. Also, a number of leading intellectuals once again jumped aboard the bandwagon with opinions that echoed the prevailing anti-intellectualism (Platt and Takagi, 1977). "The public supports more gun control laws but suspects they won't work. The public is right," proclaimed James Q. Wilson (1994: 47). "The case for more police and additional punishment rests on the immediate impacts these measures can achieve," argued Gary Becker (1993: 26). "They do not take a generation to become effective: They can reduce crime straightaway." Recently, neoconservative criminologists have called attention to the "lax attitude" of probation officers for allowing too many of their charges to violate the conditions of probation (DiIulio and Tierney, 2000: 27).

"The point seems obvious to most Americans," writes criminologist Morgan Reynolds in Newsweek (2000: 46): "punishment reduces crime.... Everyone prefers prevention to prison, yet apprehension, conviction, and punishment remain the backbone of the system. It's sad and expensive -- but true," he observes in the language of common-sense folk wisdom, belittling the complexity of out-of-touch liberals. Without any competing interpretations that explain the demise of the American dream or provide a vision of a more compassionate society, simpleminded panaceas resonate widely with people who want solutions right now and are willing to concede democratic rights to a more authoritarian regime (Hall et al., 1978; Hall, 1988).

There is nothing particularly new about politicians, intellectuals, and the media constructing moral panics to mobilize public opinion against illusory crime waves. We have seen it before with crusades against the "dangerous classes" in the 19th century, against vice and degeneracy in immigrant communities during the Progressive Era, against delinquent mothers in the 1950s, and black "muggers" in the 1970s. Today, as often in the past, the law-and-order discourse is a thinly coded representation about race and class, an "ideological conductor" for both popular discontents and the state's inability to manage racial antagonisms (Hall et al., 1978). Nobody had any doubt about the racial subtext when Time magazine, in its special issue on crime in 1994, noted that "randomly, irrationally, crime pounds at the door of a slumber party. It pulls up beside a tourist at a highway rest stop. It catches the 5:33" (Lacayo, 1994: 51). 2

The law-and-order campaign of the 1990s was not simply an ephemeral storm of outrage that emerged suddenly and will quickly dissipate. It was part of a profound shift that occurred in state power over several decades. If we are to have any hope of reconstructing a progressive agenda on crime and justice, we must first understand that there have been significant, qualitative changes in the structures of criminal justice, a process that is almost 40 years old and still unfolding. In the rest of this article, I will identify and discuss five key elements in this transformation.

Policing the Crisis

First, it was not crime but social movements and grassroots protest, plus the growing decay of urban centers, that motivated national leaders in the 1960s to modernize criminal justice bureaucracies that had developed regionally, haphazardly, and with little coordination since the 1930s. The anarchic rage unleashed by the post-civil rights ghetto revolts, as well as the obviously chaotic response to them by city police departments and National Guards, prompted the federal government and corporate elites to establish a series of investigative commissions (including Johnson's Crime Commission, the Kerner Commission, and Eisenhower's Violence Commission). One immediate result of this attention was the availability of federal funds to stimulate far-reaching reforms and impose national standards and strategies on local and state agencies. Between 1955 and 1971, criminal justice expenditures throughout the country doubled to one percent of the GNP. The rate of increase from 1966 to 1976 was about five times what it was in the previous decade (Platt et al., 1982).

The main beneficiary of this new largesse was the police, who by 1974 received 57% of the nation's $15 billion criminal justice budget, eight times the amount they had received 10 years earlier. From 1965 to 1975, the number of police increased by about 40% and in large cities like Los Angeles, they grew even faster. This development was shaped by the rise of a police-industrial complex that, backed by government subsidies and a heavy reliance on military expertise, introduced technology (in weaponry, communications, and information systems) and managerial techniques of command and control into policing. During the 1970s, the police were reorganized and diversified (from SWAT units to team policing), armed for every occasion, and plugged into nationally coordinated databases. There was considerable political opposition to these innovations (notably from African American, Latino, and New Left organizations that countered with demands for civilian review boards and "community control"). But by the end of the 1970s, the Left was silenced on these issues and policing had been transformed into a much more disciplined and militarized occupation, loyal to the state, but little else (Platt et al., 1982; Platt, 1987: 58-69; Parenti, 1999). Though financing of policing slowed down in the 1980s, its growth resumed in the following decade. Between 1993 and 1997, local police employment increased by about three percent per year, compared to one percent from 1987 to 1993 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1997).


Second, during the last 35 years, privatization has come to play such an influential role in the routine operation of the criminal justice system that the line between its public and private functions has become quite blurred. Again, this is not new (see, for example, the routine contracting out of prison labor to local firms before World War I, or the widespread use of Pinkerton and Burns cops against the labor movement), but its recent growth and scope are unprecedented. There has been a significant shift from the post-World War II emphasis by policymakers that crime control is best left to the experts, to today's widely held assumption that the criminal justice system can control only a very small portion of serious crime -- and even this requires active "public cooperation."

The privatization of criminal justice operates in the arenas of security, administration of prisons, exploitation of prison labor, contracting out of jail services, and purchase of equipment. Aided by deregulation policies and the increasing privatization of public services during the Reagan years, large corporations found lucrative contracts in the expanding criminal justice market for everything from riot batons and surveillance systems to modular prison units and electronic restraints. In the 1980s, criminal justice became a growth industry with bond measures for prison construction and new institutional designs. By the late 1990s, some five percent of prisoners nationwide were housed in private institutions, primarily in Texas and Florida (Ramirez, 1994; Parenti, 1999: 218).

While private prisons and convict labor represent a modest example of privatization, security firms forged an indispensable niche for themselves as the class and racial divide widened in the 1980s and downtown businesses sought to put a moat around their free-enterprise zones. In 1969, private security firms employed some 290,000 personnel and generated about $3.3 billion in business. By 2000, private policing was an estimated $100 billion per annum business (outspending public policing by more than 70%), employing between 1.5 and 1.8 million personnel (compared to about 540,000 in the public sector), an increase of 80% since 1980 (Cunningham et al., 1991; Spencer, 1996-1997).

The brave new world of downtown, as Mike Davis has illustrated in his analysis of Los Angeles, is now a complex, multifaceted operation, combining a mix of public and private cops, architectural barriers, technologies of omnipresent surveillance, and new forms of instrumental discipline adapted from Disney World and stadium rock concerts (Davis, 1990, 1992; Shearing and Stenning, 1987). Meanwhile, out in the suburbs there are some 30,000 guarded or gated private housing developments, and another estimated 120,000 private communities. Between 1985 and 1995, there was a fivefold increase in the number of homes with burglar alarms. The price of fortification varies, ranging from low-cost guards to expensive high-tech security, such as a computerized projectile-launching device that fires a cylinder into the bodies of unauthorized cars trying to enter Santa Clarita's Hidden Valley near Los Angeles (Pertman, 1994; Cunningham et al., 1991). Some gated communities create their own police systems, such as the exclusive Frenchman's Creek in Florida's Palm Beach Gardens, which boasts a Special Tactical Operations Patrol equipped with night-vision scopes, infrared heat detectors, and high-speed vehicles (Stark, 1999).

For the urban poor -- stuck in unsafe, largely unprotected ghettos, barrios, housing projects, and abandoned real estate -- security comes and looks cheaper: walls topped with claws, spikes, and razor-ribbon wire; fenced-in roofs and bolted doors fronted by iron gates; guard dogs and cheap guns. "Throughout the nation's cities," observes Camilo Jose Vergara (1994: 121-124), "we are witnessing the physical hardening of a new order, streetscapes so menacing, so alien, that they would not be tolerated if they were found anywhere besides poor, minority communities. In brick and cinderblock and sharpened metal, inequality takes material form." The police may be a constant presence in the poorest communities of color, but this does not stop African Americans, for example, from being victimized by robbery at a rate 150% higher than whites (Cole, 1999: 5).

The privatization of justice has bought some security for the upper strata, which are willing and able to pay top dollar. For most people, however, the emphasis on security just nourishes their anxieties and feeds the short-lived illusion that well-being can be consumed with quick-fix solutions. More significantly and dangerously, this trend concedes authority over traditionally public institutions of civil society to what are essentially private armies, close relatives of the mercenaries and vigilantes who are fast becoming indispensable to state power around the world (Kaplan, 1994). The concern, writes Andrew Stark (1999), "is not so much the diminution of the public sphere as its balkanization, as private communities and businesses struggle to hive off chunks of public police power and resources."

Imprisonment Redux

Third, as public spending on the police peaked in 1977, the fiscal and policy emphasis shifted to incarceration. The unprecedented growth of policing in the 1970s and prisons in the 1980s was financed by drastic cuts in public education, health care, and welfare, only compounding the fiscal crises facing local and state governments. When the economy expanded in the 1990s and boosted government treasuries, criminal justice lobbies and politicians ensured that prisons and police would have first call after the military on the surplus.

The prison population grew throughout the 1970s (by 42%, or almost 100,000, between 1975 and 1981), but at an even faster and unprecedented rate in the 1980s (Platt, 1987). Between 1984 and 1990, there was a 70% increase in the number of guards and other personnel working in state prisons, from 144,855 to 245,750 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993: 93). In California, the state's prison population almost tripled in a decade (1983 to 1994), making prison guards into some of the best-paid public employees (averaging $44,000) and the California Correctional Peace Officers Association into one of the most powerful unions in the state (Marine, 1994: B4).

By 1993, there were over 1.5 million adults and youth (overwhelmingly male) incarcerated in prisons, jails, and detention centers each day. By 1994, California, for example, was spending more on its prisons than it did to educate students in all its 20 state universities and 107 community colleges combined (Hill, 1994: Forum 1). In the decade of the 1990s, the prison population increased by 77%, or almost 600,000 prisoners. By 1999, for the first time more than two million people were incarcerated, a result of a significant increase in the number of parole violations, longer prison sentences, and imprisonment of drug offenders (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2000).

The significance of this trend is demonstrated most dramatically in the changing rate of imprisonment: in the late 1970s, the national rate of imprisonment per 100,000 citizens was just over 100 (relatively unchanged since the 1930s). It increased to 139 by 1980 and to 210 by 1986; by 1994, it had increased more than threefold in just 20 years; and by 1998, it was 690 and still growing (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1999b). Just when the rest of the West began to abandon the 19th-century penitentiary and turn to other less coercive and humiliating forms of social control, the United States resuscitated its prison system. The rate in England is 124, 45 in Japan, and 89 in the Netherlands. The U.S. now leads the world in rates of incarceration, far ahead of South Africa and between six and 12 times higher than other Western countries (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1992: 8; Rothman, 1994; Butterfield, 1992; Mauer, 1992, 1994; Tonry, 1999; Cose, 2000; Blomberg and Lucken, 2000: 224).

Prisons in this country have always been punitive and demeaning, but they reached a new low in the 1990s. Most institutions are now so hopelessly overcrowded that they are routinely in violation of court orders mandating basic human rights. The gutting of public services during the 1980s meant that prisons and jails have become dumping grounds for people with serious health problems, such as tuberculosis and HIV-related illnesses. For example, there were 200 AIDS-related deaths in New York's state prisons in 1992 (Rothman, 1994: 34); by 1994, of the 3,200 prisoners in California's largest prison at Vacaville, 450 were HIV positive. Also, with the closing of mental hospitals and community clinics, prisons and jails are turning into psychiatric facilities. It is estimated that one-quarter of California's prisoners, for example, suffer from some kind of serious mental illness (Sward and Wallace, 1994). The deterioration of penal conditions was recently acknowledged by the United Nations Committee Against Torture, which cited the United States for violations of an international treaty against torture for its use of electroshock stun belts and restraint chairs against prisoners, sexual assaults of female prisoners, detention of juveniles, and revival of chain gangs in state prisons (Olson, 2000: 11).

In the 19th century, there was at least an expectation that prisoners might become disciplined and productive citizens. And on those rare occasions during this century when value was attached to prisoners' work (as during World War II when all able-bodied men were drafted into the military and the labor reserve was depleted), penal conditions improved. For at least the last 30 years, however, there has been no productive work for prisoners. 3 Prisons have become absolute dead-ends for millions of men in the same way that our welfare system has become a punitive and humiliating experience for millions of poor women and children. Those who survive the experience leave embittered, angry, and unskilled, convinced that in a dog-eat-dog world only the toughest and meanest survive (Bergner, 1999). Unlike the 1950s, when the economy was expanding and the "rehabilitation" of prisoners made some sense, ex-prisoners must now compete for low-paying, nonunion service jobs against millions of laid-off, part-time, and new workers who have not done time. The current crackdown on prisoners' rights and "country-club" living standards is as much driven by the economic realities of unprofitable prison labor, which have made millions of prisoners marginal even to the reserve army of labor, as it is by the New Right's search for easy scapegoats.

Apartheid Justice

Fourth, as South Africa moves closer to Western-style democracy, we are moving back to an apartheid system of justice. There is nothing particularly new about the racialization of U.S. criminal justice: witness the use of lynching in the South after Reconstruction, or the selective enforcement of opium laws against Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, or the routine use of police brutality against black and Latino communities after World War II. Yet, in the wake of the civil rights movements and public exposes of the double standard of justice, there was an expectation that due process and the rule of law would bring some significant changes. That promise has been betrayed. In the 1990s, the return to hyper-segregation in public housing and education finds its parallel in criminal justice.

By 1979, African Americans comprised 46% of all prisoners; in several states, they greatly exceeded the national average -- 60% of all prisoners in Delaware, 74% in Louisiana, 77% in Maryland, and 97% in Washington, D.C. (Christianson, 1981; Platt, 1982, 1987; Mauer, 1990). Similar racial disparities could be found for Latinos in the Southwest and for Native Americans in states like Alaska, Montana, and North and South Dakota (Grobsmith, 1994).

African Americans bear the brunt of the law-and-order crackdown. Almost one in every three arrests now involves an African American, typically male and young. 4 According to Marc Mauer (1990) of The Sentencing Project, almost one in four black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is either in prison, jail, on probation, or parole on any given day. This means that there are more young black men in the criminal justice system than the total number of black men of all ages enrolled in college. For every one black man who graduates from college, 100 are arrested (Cole, 1999: 5).

Nationwide, African Americans make up 12% of the general population, but over 48% of prisons. The disparity is even more explicit, according to criminologist Michael Tonry, when we look at rates of confinement per 100,000. In 1973, the black rate was 368; in 1979, it was 544; and in the 1990s, it was an extraordinary 1,860 (compared to 289 for whites), a fivefold increase in 20 years (cited in Rothman, 1994: 34). Imagine the public and political outcry if a comparable percentage of young, white men were arrested and incarcerated! How bitterly ironic that those communities with the deepest suffering from racial persecution and economic deprivation are now being demonized as criminal icons.

Criminalizing Youth

From the beginning of the juvenile justice system, anti-delinquency policies were marked by issues of class, race, and gender. In the late 19th century, African American youth were placed in segregated reformatories with inferior resources; Native American youth were forced into boarding schools and stripped of their cultural heritage; young women were targeted by the juvenile court for their sexual behavior; and middle-class delinquents were largely exempt from court referrals and imprisonment (Chesney-Lind and Shelden, 1998; Howell, 1997; Platt, 1977). This double standard has permeated juvenile justice for more than 100 years, but in the last 20 years, there has been a significant shift to the right in policies and practices. The discourse of punishment and responsibility increasingly has replaced an earlier emphasis on prevention and rehabilitation. More and more juvenile offenders are now regarded as adult criminals in-the-making.

Between 1979 and 1984, the number of juveniles sent to adult prisons rose by 48%. In 1997, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that during the previous 12 years the number of persons under 18 years of age who were sentenced to adult state prisons each year more than doubled -- from 3,400 in 1985 to 7,400. The rate (per 100,000 arrested) increased from 18 to 33 in the same period (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000b). Conditions in juvenile institutions also hardened during this period. By 1985, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that two-thirds of the nation's reformatories were chronically overcrowded (Krisberg and Austin, 1993: 50). In 1983 and 1984, Georgia and Oklahoma introduced "boot camps" as a form of "shock incarceration" for first-time offenders. With their emphasis on military-style discipline and physical labor, they represent a return to the regime of the 19th-century reformatory (Talbot, 1996; National Criminal Justice Association, 1997). By 1993, some 60 boot camps were established throughout the country (Little Hoover Commission, 1995).

The political justification for increasingly punitive policies is that they were necessitated by the alarming growth in the juvenile crime rate. Government studies, however, suggest that "the rate of serious juvenile offending as of the mid-1990s was comparable to that of a generation ago.... [C]rime and arrest statistics provide no evidence for a new breed of juvenile superpredator." The murder rate for youth, for example, was lower in 1997 than it had been since the 1960s (OJJDP, 1999: 130, 132, 133).

The impact of punitive policies has fallen hardest on children of color. By 1996, African American males accounted for 44% of all cases referred from juvenile to criminal courts, an increase of five percent since 1987 (Ibid.: 171). A federal study found that although minority youth constituted about 32% of the youth population in the country in 1995, they represented 68% of the incarcerated juvenile population. These figures reflected a significant increase of over 12% since 1983. In two states studied, it was estimated that one in seven African American males (compared with approximately one in 125 white males) would be incarcerated before the age of 18 (Hsia and Hamparian, 1998). In 1996, black juveniles were referred to juvenile court at a rate more than double that for whites. In addition, once in the system, they are overrepresented in detention and reformatories. Although black youth constituted 30% of all delinquency cases processed in 1996, they represented 46% of all detained cases. By 1997, two-thirds of all incarcerated juveniles were African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans (OJJDP, 1999: 150, 155, 195).

An estimated 25% of young people arrested every year are girls (Chesney-Lind and Shelden, 1998: 2). Girls are more likely than boys to be arrested for running away from home, prostitution, and other "status offenses" (Ibid.: 8). This current preoccupation with regulating the sexual behavior of teenagers can be traced to the child-saving movement during the Progressive Era, when women's organizations initiated moral campaigns to rescue "wayward girls" (Odem, 1995; Chesney Lind and Shelden, 1998: Chapter 7; Platt, 1977). During the 1970s, when Congress called for more selective enforcement of noncriminal laws, girls benefited dramatically from a decrease in incarceration. Nevertheless, a sexual double standard still operates: girls are more likely than boys to find themselves in trouble with the law for "status offenses" (Chesney-Lind and Shelden, 1998: 139-149, 158-159).

Race plays a decisive role in how young women get involved with the juvenile justice system. Black girls are arrested at over twice the rate for white girls (Ibid.: 23), and girls of color make up about 50% of incarcerated youth. A 1993 study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that African American girls had an overall one in 188 chance of being incarcerated before their 18th birthday, compared to a one in 454 chance for Latinas, and a one in 1,000 chance for white girls (cited in Ibid.: 169-170).

The increase during the last 20 years in the imprisonment rates of adults has had an impact on families as well as adults. According to a federal study, of the nation's 72 million children and youths under the age of 17, an estimated two percent (or 1.5 million) have a parent in prison -- an increase of more than 500,000 since 1991. Over 70% of these children are African Americans or Latinos (U.S. Department of Justice, 2000a).

By the mid-1990s, juvenile court systems in large cities were overwhelmed by huge caseloads, insufficient resources, and under political pressure to emphasize punishment over rehabilitation. Chicago, for example, has one of the largest juvenile court systems in the country, with a staff of more than 600 and an annual budget that exceeds $20 million. On any given day, there are between 1,500 and 2,000 cases pending on each judge's docket, numbers that add up to about 75,000 delinquency, abuse, and neglect cases awaiting disposition. Caseloads in Cook County are twice the national standard, and an average case is dispensed with every 12 minutes. Of the close to 13,000 kids who come through the detention center each year, the overwhelming majority are poor, African American (80%), Latino (15%), and male (90%) (Ayers, 1997).

Of the 23 states that permit the execution of youthful offenders, seven (Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) have carried out executions since 1976. There have been 14 such executions in the last 10 years, more than all other countries combined that permit executions of people who commit capital crimes while under the age of 18, according to Amnesty International (Rimer and Bonner, 2000b: 16). As a result of international protests against the pending execution of a mentally ill man sentenced to death for a murder committed when he was 16, the Georgia Supreme Court recently stayed the execution of Alexander Williams, two days before his scheduled death. Currently, 80 youthful offenders are on death row in 16 states -- Texas has 26, followed by Alabama with 14 (Bonner, 2000b: 12). According to a recent study, "the nation that gave birth to the juvenile court is the only non-Third World, postindustrial society on the planet to continue to hold out the death penalty as a viable and potential legal sanction for juvenile crime" (Watkins, 1998: 221).


In the last 35 years, there has been a qualitative transformation of the American criminal justice system. It has become increasingly influenced by national politics and policies, with less and less local accountability. Police and prisons expanded at unprecedented rates in the 1970s and 1980s, paid for primarily by drastic cuts in public health, welfare, and education. Any pretense at "rehabilitation" has been abandoned and prisoners have been transformed from an exploitable commodity into dangerous garbage, to be quarantined out of sight, but never out of mind. Privatization of criminal justice products, services, and ideas has developed at such a pace that it no longer makes any sense to analyze private and public justice as separate systems. Liberal policies with respect to youth crime, which were briefly implemented in the 1970s, have hardened into punitive segregation. And the increasing racialization of social control (from San Quentin to city planning) reinforces the conclusion that the struggle for civil rights remains very much unfinished.

The results of the November 2000 elections, in which law and order played a taken-for-granted role, might suggest that the neoconservative campaign for a more authoritarian state has become hegemonic because it appears to mirror "common sense." As personal security remains as precarious as ever, and as millions are denied the full rights of citizenship and access to economic equality, what appears final and victorious is in fact quite provisional and unstable. Popular support for the politics of law and order is certainly broad-based after some 20 years of mostly unchallenged right-wing ideology that was endorsed by both political parties, but such support is also shallow and vulnerable to a critical discourse.

There are several signs of insecurity in the security state. Government investigations of "racial profiling" by the New Jersey State Police and of systematic corruption and brutality by officers in Los Angeles' Rampart station have reopened a public debate about institutionalized police racism and the need for watchdog measures (Associated Press, 2000; Barstow and Kocieniewski, 2000; Kocieniewski and Hanley, 2000; Hayden, 2000). Public support for the death penalty has declined to 66% from 80% in 1984, and there is growing political opposition to executions on the grounds that innocent people may die or that race and region may be determining factors (Lifton and Mitchell, 2000; Butterfield, 2000a; Rimer, 2000c). Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, admitted near the end of her term that she was "sorely troubled" by disparities in the federal death penalty; and even the rightist Supreme Court intervened last November to halt the execution in Texas of a mentally retarded prisoner less than four hours before he was to be put to death by injection (Lacey and Bonner, 2000; Rimer, 2000b; Bonner, 2000a).

In California, which leads the country in prison construction, voters recently approved by 61% a statewide proposition mandating treatment in lieu of incarceration for first- and second-time nonviolent drug offenders. This could possibly reduce the prison population by 36,000, according to the state's Legislative Analyst's Office (Nieves, 2000a; Wallace, 2000). Passage of Proposition 36 has given encouragement to a coalition of organizations that are trying to stop the construction of what would be California's 34th prison (Nieves, 2000b). Meanwhile, at the national level, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued a statement critical of current criminal justice policies, noting that "the status quo is not really working -- victims are often ignored, offenders are often not rehabilitated, and many communities have lost their sense of security" (Niebuhr, 2000).

These developments are of course insufficient to turn back right-wing policies that have been three decades in the making. Nor should we expect a law-and-order president, an attorney general with a taste for Confederate culture, a conservative Supreme Court, and an opportunistic Congress to respond quickly to public concerns about the efficacy and equity of the criminal justice system. Yet they do indicate an opening in the facade of consensus and the possibility that if we revitalize a progressive agenda on crime and punishment, people will consider reasons other than crime for their deep sense of social insecurity.


1. According to national victimization surveys, in 1991 the rate of victimization (per 1,000) for crimes of violence was 31.3, compared to 32.6 in 1976 and 35.3 in 1981. Rape (.8) was relatively unchanged in 15 years and robbery rates went down from 6.5 in 1976 to 5.6 in 1991. In 1991, the rate of household victimization was 53.1, compared to 88.9 in 1976 and 87.9 in 1981. Between 1973 and 1991, there was a 25% decrease in the rates of both personal and household victimization. The murder rate in the early 1990s was lower than in the late 1970s (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993).

2. The objectified "it" evoked three highly publicized cases: the kidnapping and killing of a young white girl in Petaluma, California, by an alleged "half-caste"; a spate of "carjackings" and attacks by black youth on European tourists in Florida; and a "rampage" by a West Indian immigrant on a commuter train in New York.

3. As Christian Parenti (1999: 230-235) notes, the privatization of convict labor currently affects a very small percentage of prisoners.

4. Of the 10.5 million arrests in 1991, 29% (or 3,049,299) were African Americans (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993: 434).


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