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resolve the law-and-order problem, which they characterized primarily as an issue of police brutality, organized white violence against those who challenged the color line, and discriminatory enforcement of laws. Others had been arguing for this greater investment in law enforcement, but for more punitive reasons. In short, strengthening investments in cities and social programs to mitigate the stresses and strains of the Great Migration had long been a secondary priority for many liberals, along with enhancing law enforcement and professionalizing the police.

In 1965, with strong support from the Johnson Administration, Congress enacted the Law Enforcement Assistance Act. This legislation established the Office of Law Enforcement Assistance to award grants and administer other programs aimed at improving and expanding law enforcement, court administration, and prison operations at the state and local levels. The dollar amounts involved were small, but the political significance was considerable. This measure engaged the federal government in criminal justice and law enforcement, both rhetorically and substantively, to an unprecedented degree (Flamm, 2005; Thompson, 2010).

The 1965 act garnered strong support spanning the political spectrum.

Liberal Democrats, who had been ardently pushing since the 1940s for more proceduralism, neutrality, and uniformity in policing practices and sentencing policies, generally supported the act. Some of them rallied for greater police professionalism in the hope that this would yield racial fairness and thus reduce political unrest and crime among minority groups.

Some of them also viewed an increase in expenditures on the police as complementing the recent series of Supreme Court decisions that had expanded procedural rights for suspects and defendants. In contrast, conservatives in both parties sought to use the expansion of federal involvement in law enforcement as a means of empowering police to deal forcefully with urban unrest. Many of them also hoped to counteract the Warren Court decisions that in their view had procedurally handcuffed the police and prosecutors (Kamisar, 2005; Allen, 1975). Thus, with mixed motivations, both liberals and conservatives helped clear the political ground for this and subsequent measures that expanded the criminal justice system and ultimately gave local, state, and federal authorities increased capacity for arrest, prosecution, and incarceration.

In 1965, Johnson also established the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice. Three years later, Congress enacted the controversial Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 in response to the commission’s findings. Liberals were generally supportive of initial drafts of this legislation, which provided federal grants to police for equipment, training, and pilot programs and also greater federal investments in rehabilitation, crime prevention, and alternatives to incarceration. But as the bill moved through the legislative process, southern Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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Democrats and their Republican allies were able to substantially modify the final bill (Flamm, 2005, Chapter 7). They added funding formulas that gave state governments—not cities or the federal government—great leeway to distribute the large amounts of federal money that would be funneled over the years through the new Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.

Furthermore, they successfully inserted provisions on wiretapping, confessions, and use of eyewitnesses that curtailed the procedural protections that had been extended by Supreme Court decisions (Flamm, 2005).

Still, some liberals viewed passage of the Safe Streets Act as another important step toward modernizing, professionalizing, and federalizing the criminal justice system. A number of them also saw it as an important mechanism for containing the growing social and political unrest in their own cities and states (Murakawa, forthcoming; Hinton, 2012). However, many other liberals were strongly opposed to the measure. They objected to what they saw as an emphasis on law enforcement solutions as the cost of addressing the “root causes” of crime. They also were strongly opposed to several provisions in the bill that they viewed as an inappropriate erosion of core civil liberties.

The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968, near the end of the primary season, helped tip the balance in favor of the Safe Streets Act (Flamm, 2005, pp. 138-140; Simon, 2007, pp. 49-53). Two weeks after the assassination, Johnson signed the Safe Streets Act, though with considerable reluctance. He calculated that a veto might result in even harsher legislation and could irreparably harm Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s campaign for the presidency (Flamm, 2005, p. 140).

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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Republican Party leaders were in an especially good position during these years to tap into public fears and anxieties about crime and to turn crime into a wedge issue between the two parties. As the Democratic Party split over civil rights issues, the south became politically competitive for the first time since the end of Reconstruction a century earlier. This development ushered in a major political realignment. Furthermore, key features of the political structure of the United States, which are discussed in greater detail below, made it especially vulnerable to politicians seeking to exploit public fears concerning crime and other law-and-order issues.





Rates for most serious crimes counted in the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), increased significantly after 1961. Between 1964 and 1974, the U.S. homicide rate nearly doubled to 9.8 per 100,000,7 and rates of other serious crimes also jumped. The homicide rate continued to oscillate around a relatively high rate of 8 to 10 per 100,000 until the early 1990s, before beginning a steady and significant drop that has since continued. Other Western countries have experienced strikingly similar patterns in their crime rates, although from smaller bases (Tonry, 2001).

The rise in homicide rates was concentrated geographically and demographically. As far back as the 1930s, the homicide rate for blacks in northern cities was many times the rate for whites (Lane, 1989). The gap in black-white homicide rates widened further over the course of the Second Great Migration as millions of blacks moved to urban areas outside the south, and it continued to grow thereafter (Jacoby, 1980).8 The homicide rates in poor neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage often were many times higher than those in affluent urban neighborhoods. Before crime rates began their steep drop in the early 1990s, the homicide rate among young black men aged 18 to 24 was nearly 200 per 100,000, or about 10 times the rate for young white men and about 20 times the rate for the U.S.

population as a whole (Western, 2006, p. 170). Unfortunately, historical data on homicides among Latinos have been largely missing or unreported in existing official sources such as the UCR. Still, homicide rates for Latinos in 2005 were 7.5 per 100,000, as compared with 2.7 for white non-Latinos (Vega et al., 2009). The disparities are more pronounced for young men aged 15 to 24, with 31 deaths per 100,000 for Latinos compared with 10.6 for white non-Latinos.

Like the Great Migration, earlier waves of immigration from Ireland and southern and central Europe that flowed into U.S. cities in the

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osu.edu/researchprojects/hvd/ [February 2014]; post-1980 homicide data are from the annual volumes of the UCR.

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The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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nineteenth and early twentieth centuries prompted “widespread fears and predictions of social deterioration,” including public alarm that crime would rise as the number of immigrants rose in U.S. cities (MacDonald and Sampson, 2012, p. 7). Yet in the early twentieth century, a “hopeful vision of white criminality” eventually took hold in the wake of waves of immigration from Europe (Muhammad, 2010, p. 98). This vision grew out of the view that white criminality in urban areas was rooted primarily in the strains of industrial capitalism and urban life. Thus, policy makers, legislators, and social activists in the Progressive era sought to ameliorate those strains by pressing for greater public and private investments in education, social services, social programs, and public infrastructure in urban areas with high concentrations of European immigrants. The empirical findings of leading sociologists of the early twentieth century (Sutherland, 1947; Sellin,

1938) bolstered claims in the public sphere that “it was not immigration per se that accounted for social ills” but the poor living conditions in those overcrowded, unhealthy urban areas that tended to be magnets for immigrants entering the United States (MacDonald and Sampson, 2012, p. 7).

In contrast, the country responded to the rise in urban crime rates that followed the influx of many African Americans into U.S. cities and of many Mexicans into southwestern states by adopting increasingly punitive policies. For example, the rise in Mexican immigration to communities in the southwest was associated with increases in arrests without cause, denial of legal counsel, and harsh tactics ranging from interrogation sessions to beatings (Grebler et al., 1970). Research also suggests that the federal antimarijuana law of 1937 was directed primarily against Mexican Americans (Hoffman, 1977).

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Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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depicted by conservative politicians and in the media. They viewed heightened public fears over crime as a by-product of political posturing and an artifact of inaccurate and misleading statistics. For example, Nicholas Katzenbach, who served as U.S. attorney general in the early years of the Johnson Administration, maintained that the crime figures were inconclusive and that false information about crime often intimidated or misled the general public (Flamm, 2005, p. 125).

It does appear that the UCR data exaggerated the extent and duration of the crime increase for certain offense categories (Flamm, 2005, pp. 125Ruth and Reitz, 2003).10 Prior to 1973, when the U.S. Department of Justice began its yearly household survey of crime victims (the National Crime Victimization Survey), the UCR were the major source of nationallevel crime statistics. These data, which were recorded and collated by local police departments and then reported to the FBI, were often systematically skewed in recording and reporting, due in part part to incentives to record more crime in order to receive more government funding to combat crime (Ruth and Reitz, 2003; Thompson, 2010).11 Those liberals who did take the crime jump seriously often failed to challenge conservatives when they conflated riots, street crime, and political activism, especially on the part of African Americans and their supporters, and when they attributed the crime increase to the launch of the Great Society and to the mixing of the races due to the demise of segregation. Indeed, some key liberals contended that the “crime problem” was predominantly a race and civil rights problem, suggesting that entrenched segregation had created black cultural dysfunction and social disorder that, among other things, contributed to higher crime rates in urban areas (Murakawa, forthcoming).

The rise in national crime rates beginning in the 1960s coincided with an exceptional period in which punishments for many crimes were easing. During this time, moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a series of landmark decisions that restricted the authority of the police, established protections for suspects and those in custody, and overturned criminal 10 Trends in UCR robbery rates correspond closely with the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) over the past 50 years, but trends in aggravated assault do not. The UCR aggravated assault series trended upward from the early 1970s through the early 1990s, while the NCVS aggravated assault series (which is defined similarly) was trending downward. The difference likely is due to an increase in the recording of assaults as “aggravated” by the police during that period. Since the early 1990s, the UCR and NCVS aggravated assault series have trended similarly (Rosenfeld, 2007).

11 After 1965, for example, “thanks to a new federal commitment to fighting crime, local enforcement could net substantial infusions of money and equipment by demonstrating that crime was on the rise in their area. Significantly, when crime rates began to inch up in Detroit in the later 1960s, even the city’s mayor admitted that ‘new methods of counting crime’ had played an important role in ‘distorting the size of the increase’” (Thompson, 2010, p. 727).

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.

The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences

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convictions that violated newly articulated constitutional principles. Conservative critics of the Warren Court charged that these “soft on crime” rulings, together with misguided liberal social welfare policies, had contributed to the increase in the crime rate.



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